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Fighting at the Movies

September 5, 2011

By John C.

From last year’s Oscar-winning The Fighter to next month’s Real Steel where Hugh Jackman plays a washed up boxer who turns to the underground world of teaching robots how to fight, movies about boxing or mixed martial arts have been making a bit of a resurgence as of late.  So in honour of Warrior opening in theatres this Friday, it seems like the perfect time to look back over five of the best fighting movies of all time.

There are many places I could start this article, including way back in 1931 with The Champ.  But no movie about the world of boxing or fighting seems to have left its mark on cinema quite like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky in 1976.  Centred on Rocky Balboa’s training for a New Year’s Day fight as well as his endearing relationship with the shy Adrian (Talia Shire), both critics and audiences alike were immediately taken by the undeniably inspirational underdog story.

Some critics remain cynical to the fact that the film beat out such masterpieces as Taxi Driver and Network for the 1976 Best Picture Oscar, but Rocky remains an important part of popular culture and a personal favourite for many audiences.  I mean, has anyone watched “The Italian Stallion” go through his rigorous daily training without fantasizing about running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the beat of an inspirational pop song?  Director John G. Avilsdon achieved the same sort of success when he made The Karate Kid in 1984.

Where’s Rocky was an inspirational crowd pleaser, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull couldn’t have been more different.  Starring Robert De Niro in a role that required him to get in shape and subsequently gain sixty pounds by the final scene, this was a gritty look at boxer Jake La Motta’s physical struggle inside the ring as well as his emotional struggle outside of it.  Stylistically shot in black and white, Raging Bull was perhaps most memorable for the devastating realization of how La Motta’s actions inside the ring made him a prize-fighter, but that same anger ultimately destroyed his life.

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is one of the rare movies about female boxing, but just when we think we know where it is going, the film takes a completely different turn in the last act.  Hilary Swank won her second Oscar for her brilliant leading work and took the film to Best Picture glory, showing us someone who finally finds her place in the world when she straps on the boxing gloves and meets an unlikely ally in her coach.  Even if you don’t agree with the choices the characters ultimately make, the film gives us a very believable reason for every one of their actions.  Million Dollar Baby is a great movie about what can happen when a sport consumes your life, but it’s also a deeply moving story about how far we could go for an unlikely friendship.  Since 2004, the film hasn’t faded.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a brutal and sometimes graphically realistic look at the world of underground wrestling, particularly how much the performers will torture themselves in honour of putting on a show.  Mickey Rourke’s brilliant performance as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson just missed the Oscar and Bruce Springsteen’s beautiful song wasn’t even nominated, but both critics and audiences related to this devastating film right through to the moving and unforgettable final scene.  The Wrestler is an unflinching portrait of a man so consumed by wrestling that it ends up completely taking over his life, and the audience can do nothing but watch as he spirals deeper into the darkness.

Equal parts moving family drama and rousing sports movie, last year’s The Fighter told the story of Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) a washed up boxer who had succumbed to drug addictions and since pinned all of his career hopes and dreams on his brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg).  Bale won an Oscar for his definitive performance, as did Melissa Leo for her role as the matriarch of the fighting family.  From beginning to inspirational end, The Fighter is a powerful “based on a true story” drama that easily ranks among the best movies about boxing.

Which brings us right back to Warrior.  Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) this is the story of two brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendon (Joel Edgerton), who are both working towards a mixed martial arts tournament.  Tommy is an ex-Marine being trained by their alcoholic father, Paddy  (Nick Nolte).  Brendon has taken up at a local gym and plans to compete so that he can pay his mortgage.  Like all great sports movies, the last act of Warrior is outstanding as it delivers a rousing and sometimes brutal fight that leaves the audience with tears in their eyes and in genuine suspense.  The final minute is purely inspirational.

Often about characters who train and compete to earn money, sometimes because they have become completely consumed by the competition that it is all they have left in their lives, a good sports movie allows us to get in touch with our own personal need to succeed.  The best ones grab hold of us and don’t let go until the final scene.  Audiences have related to them in a big way over the years, and I honestly think that moviegoers are going to embrace Warrior once it opens in theatres this Friday.

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