The most basic and primal of sports, fighting, has created some of the best sports movies of all time. A thorough look at the pugilist picture is yours for the reading.
Fighting. Movies. Two parts to one genre. Fighting, the art of combat. The struggle of one against his opponent in a battle of submission or destruction. The aggressive and untamed practice of inflicting damage that can be reigned in as a sweet science…. or a deadly means of survival. Movies, or in this case, sports movies. The artful and cinematic representation of man’s desire to compete and be victorious. The feel-good story, the underdog ballad, the legends’ lore. Fighting movies are the carefully constructed expressions of man’s most unstable and volatile of actions. The beauty of film and the brutality of violence are juxtaposed in this artistic vision. Fighting. Movies.
As much as I wish I could write with that kind of poetic styling for an entire post, I’m no genius of English elocution.
Sports movies are entertaining, no doubt. However, many of them face problems that can detract from their cinematic value or their representation of sport. Most sports movies are not really movies about sports. Is Invictus really about the actual rugby matches, or the even the team itself? I look at it as a story of racism and politics with sport as the catalyst for the movie’s events. The Blind Side story happens because of Michael Oher’s football abilities, but isn’t it really about his relationship with the Tuohy’s? Furthermore, the representation of the sport itself is often lacking, especially in football movies. Even if the portrayal of the sporting events is okay, the actual screen time for the competitions is often secondary to plot-driving dialogues. Still, some excellent sports movies have been made over the years, with Remember the Titans probably being my favorite. What Titans did so well was express the racist setting in the microcosm of the team. With important illustrations of racism in the home city and the training camp, the story is given weight, while the on-field action provides solid sport entertainment. The movie is about a football team that highlights race issues, rather than a story about some segregated people who happen to play football together.
The fighting movie is almost always able to avoid the traps that so many sports movies fall into. And, as you will see, the formula of the fight is so powerful that even the recycled underdog story can survive from movie to movie. From the hilarious and silly Nacho Libre, to the brutal, powerful, and Oscar-winning Gladiator, organized combat wins time and again. For this article, the following fighting movies will be focused on: Rocky, Rocky Balboa, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Real Steel, Jet Li’s Fearless, The Fighter, and Warrior. Topics covered will include: What makes the fight movie work? What makes each movie so successful? Which of these movies is (in my humble and uneducated opinion) the best? The answer will surprise you.
In the past few months, I have talked at length about the special place of basic athletic events in sports. I wrote about Usain Bolt’s defiance of the limits on human speed and Lance Armstrong’s role as a cyclist and a symbol of strength and perseverance. Fighting, like running and cycling, is a basic feat of athleticism. True, boxing is a sweet science, and technique is paramount in the martial arts, but the concept of battling your opponent is an innate part of the human condition. When a man triumphs over his opponent, he has done so by physically vanquishing him. He has not created a set number of points, or sent a sphere into a goal a greater number of times. Rather, he has put himself on the line against his opponent, and has sacrificed his body to achieve victory. People can identify and love this type of competition and victory. Boxing terms have become used in everyday language; going toe-to-toe, up against the ropes, knockout, and going ten rounds have all become commonly used in the English vernacular.
This style of athletic competition also creates the heroes of these films that so captivate the audience. Fighting becomes a way of life, a discipline that requires their entire attention. Most fighting films have sequences or montages of training (and in the case of Rocky, it left the most lasting image of that film). How often do you see basketball players shooting free throws while preparing for the big game? This persona also becomes the identity of that character. They are a fighter, a warrior, a raging bull. They are fearless, they do have real steel. Dennis Quaid in The Rookie is a high school chemistry teacher who happens to have a gifted throwing arm. Pitching is not his life. Conversely, a common theme in fighting movies is the distraction; anything outside of fighting, like women, friends, and success, often prevent the main character from achieving their goal.
Fighting is also better portrayed as a sport than most others, like football or basketball. Fights are fast-paced, even frenetic, and hard-hitting (no pun intended). True, the exchanges of punches in Rocky are a little unrealistic and monotonous, but the clash of giant robots in Real Steel, the balletic duels in Fearless, and the brutal melees of Warrior and Raging Bull are entertaining and riveting. The stop-and-go nature of a football game does not translate well into the cinematic forum, and the redundant “basketball player makes a move on a mindless defender, then shoots a shot which goes in only after the camera angle has shifted to a close up of the hoop” is not very captivating. It is also impossible to show an entire event with a team sport, while a fight can be shown from beginning to end. The result: the climactic competitions in fighting movies are much more engrossing than the “final game” of a team sport film.
The movies previously listed all cover at least some of these criteria, and the unique twists of each help to make every one of them a successful movie. There may be some very minor spoilers.
Rocky– In essence, the original underdog story. With more pop culture references to its name than an episode of Saturday Night Live, the story of a long-shot getting the chance at the title brought the long-shot story to the forefront of movie-making. Sylvester Stallone, a long-shot director and actor himself, was launched into stardom, and the film was a commercial and critical success. The archetypes of the fight movie are there, including the rise to prominence, the could-have-been, the training sequences, and the distractions. While today it may appear to be cheesy, it remains as a pillar of cinema history because of the story that resounds with everyone. You cannot dislike Rocky.
Rocky Balboa– After four sequels and thirty years, Sylvester Stallone came back and did the same thing he did with Rocky, only better. This time, Rocky is a returning champion, an underdog legend. His opponent is different from the simple bad guys like Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago. Mason Dixon is an unchallenged and prima dona champion who just needs a chance to find his heart of a champion. The idea of a former champion returning to the ring for another fight makes the final film in the series as good, if not better, than the first.
Raging Bull– Brutal, gritty, and artistic, Raging Bull hits the audience as hard as the main character hits his opponents. The story of Jake LaMotta is like one continuous fight, whether he is pummeling opponents in the ring or in constant arguments with his family members. Raging Bull encapsulates perfectly the concept of the man who is a fighter. LaMotta is a raging bull. He is, as his neighbor bravely and foolishly calls him, an animal. And unlike many fighting movies, he is not an underdog. He is a force of nature who most people are too afraid to step into the ring with. His greatest enemy is himself.While the sport itself is not as central to the film as it is in some of the others in this list, boxing is where the animal inside the main character can unleash its rage in a socially acceptable, yet vividly brutal manner.
Cinderella Man– The literal and true rags-to-riches story resonates with audiences as it strikes some of the biggest fight movie themes. Former champion James Braddock fights for his family in the midst of The Depression, facing the classic bad guy in Max Baer (who was not as bad in real life) for a chance to fight his way out of poverty. Similar in its themes to Rocky, Cinderella Man is also helped by the “true story” aspect and excellent fight choreography and cinematography. Similar to other films of this nature, boxing is James’ only way out.
Real Steel– Again, the formulaic underdog story is intact, but the father-son aspect, and the fact that the fighters are massive robots and not people, make Real Steel original and fantastically entertaining. Everyone knows that after being the actual fighter, being the trainer is the next best thing. In Real Steel, Charlie gets to be both, as well as the manager. Even though it is, as Pete Hammond called it, “Rocky with robots”, the idea of training and controlling these steel warriors is enough to carry the film.
Jet Li’s Fearless– I’m willing to bet you have never seen, or heard of, this Chinese martial arts movie. Too bad, because it does everything right. Huo, the main character, is at some time in the movie both the unbeatable champion and the underdog. Like LaMotta, his greatest enemy is himself, as his arrogance leads to his initial downfall. Without a doubt, this movie contains the most fighting of any listed here, and that is a welcome fact, as the balletic brutality of wushu martial arts create unbelievable sequences of combat. The final fight is immensely powerful. Friendship, family tragedy, redemption, and courage make Fearless a tour-d-force of a fight film.
Warrior-What happens when a film has not one, but two long-shot contestants? What happens when those contestants are estranged brothers? Warrior tells that story in a powerful manner. The relationships between the two brothers and their father (who they hate for past crimes) are the focus of the story, but the force that brings them all together is a monumental mixed martial arts tournament. While the trends of martial arts movies are present, such as the training sequences and the million-to-one shot, Warrior attacks the genre from a unique perspective. After carefully setting the stage, the final act is a brilliant sequence of fights, ending with one of the most powerful final fights imaginable, in which the audience wants both contestants to win.
The Fighter– The story of Micky Ward takes a grittier approach to the underdog formula. Based on true events, the film tells the story of Micky and his older brother, Dicky. It’s a story about boxing, but it’s more about the horrible mess that the characters live in. Micky has lost his fire, Dicky is a drug addict, and their mother is overbearing and unpredictable. To make matters worse, Micky’s girlfriend is demanding of him, and his love for her and his devotion to his unreliable brother creates a conflict more potent than any fighter he faces in the ring. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Fighter is better as a film than it is as a sports movie. Still, the against all odds theme keeps it in line with other movies of the same order, and its strengths are undeniable.
Consider the fighting movies that are not on this list (due to my having not seen them) that are regarded as outstanding. The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby (for example) are both highly regarded films. Sports films do not often receive Oscar nominations, but when they do, it is generally a fighting film. After reading this article, I hope that does not come as a surprise.
Personally, I believe that, of all the films I “reviewed” in this article, Fearless, is the best. I respect the hardware won by Raging Bull, Rocky, and The Fighter, but to me, the excellent aspects of the fighting movie are best portrayed in the Jet Li film. A unique and original plot, combined with unbelievable fighting, creates what I would call a must-see film, subtitles and all (unless you just plain dislike martial arts films (although it is not as “foreign” as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)).
So there you have it. My take on the pugilist pictures. I know more about sports than I do about movies, but I’m no dope when it comes to the cinema. And remember, this is a sports blog about life. Because sports are more than a game, and life is more than sports.
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