Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The FTT Movie Review: Phantom Punch

I have an odd relationship with boxing. I don't generally watch it, didn't really grow up with it, and for the most part, think that it's something that a better society wouldn't have. Especially with the growing horror that is the concussion trends in the NFL, having this exist is just sort of unconscionable. I can easily imagine a world without it, the same way that people in the 19th century could imagine a world without slavery, or those in the middle part of the 20th could imagine a world without constant cigarette smoking and mandatory hat wearing.

And yet, I feel pity for boxing fans, simply because they may be the most underserved sports fans in America. You think you have to hold your nose when you spend money on MLB, NFL or NBA? It's nothing compared to the felons, reprobates and out and out human scum that surround the ring. If you love this sport, you pay through the nose, see a handful of good fights a year, and know that there's a really strong likelihood that the new talent won't be as good as the old, since the sport no longer gets the best athletes.

There's one other thing to consider, which is this... it lends itself to the most cinematic storytelling. Boxing doesn't have teams, per se, and for the most part, luck also doesn't play into it. Every fighter knows that the end is coming, and could happen at any second in the ring. There's a certain tension and poignancy to it, really. It's hard to make a truly bad movie about boxing.

Which leads me to this recent movie, which I spun in a sick haze last night, to try to distract myself from a debilitating stomach virus. It stars Ving Rhames as Sonny Liston, who the history-challenged don't remember as a controversial, Tyson-esque heavyweight champion of the world. Liston learns boxing in prison, rises through the ranks to defeat the well-respected Floyd Patterson, then eventually loses twice with controversy to then Cassius Clay. Liston fights on for a few years after that, and is eventually found dead in his Las Vegas home of a fishy drug overdose. Considering that Liston was involved with all sort of organized crime for his entire career, and that he had a lifelong fear of needles, it's a pretty fair bet to say he was murdered for not throwing a fight.

Liston's career was basically a constant downer of wasted potential, virulent racism, police corruption, unmitigated hostility and failed character. In the history books, he's basically remembered as Tyson 1.0... and well, there's a great tragic story here. But just as in life, Liston is undercut by circumstances. Rhames is a fine actor, but he's pushing 50 when he made this, and the film makers just can't get past the lumbering slowness in the fight scenes; you never really get the sense *why* Liston was so devastating on offense. The director, Robert Townsend, doesn't bother trying to make Rhames seem a day younger or older in all of his scenes, despite the movie covering something like 15 years of Liston's life. He also goes for a cliche fade to black and white cut to end scenes, which starts off as a cliche and gets worse after a couple of dozen uses. The clearly Canadian manner of filming, and the budget-inspired decision to make Clay a non-speaking part -- probably the first time in cinematic history that anyone chose to not let Muhammad Ali speak -- also rankles.

And yet, there's still something here, just because the central story is that powerful. Liston comes from nothing to be the most known and hated man in America, all while dreaming of the moment in which he will finally be over the bleakness of his upbringing and situation. It also doesn't hurt that Stacey Dash, Nicholas Turturro and Bridgette Wilson nail their roles as Liston's wife, manager, and mistress. Townshend wisely doesn't make ironclad dictates as to exactly what happened in the two Clay fights, whether or not Liston was a rapist, and exactly how the man dies. That makes the whole thing watchable, even if Townsend leaves a lot on the table, and skirts around the central mysteries of the man's life... to wit, did he throw either Clay fight, and if so, why?

Finally, there's this: just like Tyson, Liston really doesn't give the world any great fights to remember him by. There are any number of moments of barbaric power. But when faced with real adversity in the ring, both men cheat; Liston blinds Ali with something from his gloves, then refuses to take the ring with a supposed injury; Tyson bites Evander Holyfield. And that, really, is why I've always been suspicious of people who think of Tyson as their favorite fighter, just as I'd question anyone who really wants to defend Liston's legacy.

Because when these guys are your favorites, you really aren't there for the fight. You are there for the injury. And Sonny Liston was nothing, in the final analysis, but a world of hurt.

1 comment:

CMJDad said...

Don't let either fighters later career fool you. Both were devastating early on. I believe both would have beaten Clay early on, that is how powerful they were. When Tyson was trained by Cus D'Amato & Kevin Rooney, his head was in the game. Enter Don King. Bang, game over.

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