Category: Boxing film

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)

A fighter has a title shot, in a surprisingly heartwarming film about the importance of family, no matter how messed up it is

Director: David O Russell

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Eklund-Ward), Jack McGee (George Ward), Frank Renzulli (Sal Lanano), Mickey O’Keefe (Himself)

Everyone loves Rocky. We all want to that local-hero-turned-good, the guy who went the distance. Lowell, Massachusetts had that in Dicky Eklund. Eklund, a minor pro-boxer, once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 (he argues he knocked him down, although many are convinced Leonard slipped). “The Pride of Lowell” then became… a crack addict, tumbling from disaster to let-down, helping and hindering the career of his brother, fellow boxer Micky Ward.

The story of the two brothers – leading up to Ward’s eventual title shot in 1997 – comes to the screen in Russell’s affectionate, if traditional, boxing drama, long a passion project of Mark Wahlberg who plays Micky. Wahlberg kept himself in boxer-condition for years as he dreamed of making the film, recruiting director and cast and producing the film. The fine, sensitive film we’ve ended up with is a tribute to his commitment and producing skills, while the fact that Wahlberg casts himself in the least dynamic part is a nice sign of his generosity.

Because it’s only really on the surface a Micky Ward film. Sure, the film follows the vital events in his life. It opens with him bashed up in a mis-match, filling his role as a “stepping stone” fighter, someone the future champs flex their muscles against. We follow his struggles to escape from under the thumb of his large brash family – above all his bombastic, domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo). He forms a relationship with ambitious-but-caring Charlene (Amy Adams), moves up the ranking, lands that title shot, fights the big bout. But it never quite feels like Micky is the star.

Because, really, this feels like it’s about Dicky Eklund working out the first act of his life is over, and trying to find if he has what it takes to start a second, more humble, one. The film opens with Dicky followed by an HBO crew for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Dicky’s convinced himself it’s to chart his boxing come-back. It’s actually about the horrific impact of crack addiction. Dicky is a strung-out, unreliable junkie, living on past glories but screwing up everything he touches, being enabled by the fawning worship of his mother and sisters, who still worship him as the families main event (and continue to do so, even as Micky rises to title shot). The film’s heart is Eklund sinking to rock bottom and realising he has forced the compliant Micky into playing a subservient role in his own life.

Perhaps it feels like a film more focused on the remoulding of this charming but selfish figure because of the compelling performance of Christian Bale. Starving himself down to match Eklund’s wizened, strung-out physique (he’s still got the boxer moves, but his body has wasted away) is a day’s work for a transformative actor like Bale. But this isn’t just a physical performance, but a deep immersion into the personality of a person who almost doesn’t realise until it is too late how fundamentally flawed he is. Bale’s a ball of fizzling energy and electric wit coated in a lethargic drug-induced incoherence. His energy is frantic but uncontrolled, wild and mis-focused. It’s a superb, heartfelt performance of loveable but dangerous uselessness that nabbed Bale an Oscar.

But what makes The Fighter a surprisingly warm film is that, for all his many flaws, selfishness and self-obsession, Dicky genuinely cares for his brother. He wants the best for him, he believes in and loves him. Much of the power of Bale’s performance comes from the fact he never forgets this, even when Dicky is at his worst. In fact, Russell’s whole film works because that warmth and love everyone feels for Micky is never forgotten and never weaponised by Russell into helping us make moral judgements about the characters. Nor does it forget that Micky may sometimes hate his family, but he never stops loving and needing them.

A weaker film would have stressed the trailer-trash greed of Melissa Leo’s Alice. Leo (who also scored an Oscar and famously dropped the f-bomb on live TV, condemning the ceremony to a permanent time delayed broadcast ever since) is in many ways playing an awful character: controlling, nakedly favouring Eklund over his brother, quick to judge, rude and aggressive. She’s never truly likeable – but Russell’s film understands everything she does is motivated by love. She genuinely wants the best for Micky, even while she pushes him into bad fights and never listens to him. She tries to protect him, and expresses this in destructive selfishness.

In many ways she’s just like Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who recognises early that Micky’s family (who have turned him into a timid hen-pecked type) can’t be trusted to run his whole career, but who also subtly pushes herself into Alice’s place as the leading decision-making influence in his life. Very well played by Amy Adams (who lost the Oscar to Leo), Charlene is smart, sexy, loving but just as determined that it’s her way or the highway.

What Micky needs to do, the film carefully (if rather safely) outlines, is take the best qualities of all his influences. It’s Eklund’s “job” to realise Micky needs everyone he loves singing from the same hymn-sheet. It needs compromise and putting other people first. It makes for a nice little paean to the importance of family relationships, founded on forgiveness and admitting when you are wrong. Micky forgives his mother and brother for their selfishness: they, in turn, acknowledge their mistakes. Eklund is crucial here: Bale is again superb as a man who suddenly realises pride has nearly ruined his life and embraces the junior role in the relationship with his brother.

Sure, none of this reinvents this wheel, but it still makes for engaging and rather sweet drama. Russell mixes it with some neat stylistic flourishes that don’t overwhelm the film. It’s shot with an edgy, handheld immediacy reflecting its street roots. The fights are shot with old TV cameras, so that invented footage can fuse with 90s HBO coverage. Russell of course gets great performances from his actors, as he always does.

The Fighter is in many ways predictable. But it wears its heart very much on its sleeve, and Wahlberg deserves credit for assembling it and for giving a quiet, generous performance at the centre of it. And the film’s commitment to the idea that, no matter the problems in our families, we can all find the courage to admit our mistakes and pull in the same direction remains heartwarming.

Ali (2001)

Ali (2001)

Will Smith captures The Greatest in a film that misses the fire and passion of Muhammad Ali

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Will Smith (Muhammad Ali), Jamie Foxx (Drew Bundini Brown), Jon Voight (Howard Cosell), Mario van Peebles (Malcolm X), Ron Silver (Angelo Dundee), Jeffrey Wright (Howard Bingham), Mykelti Williamson (Don King), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sonji Roy), Nona Gaye (Khalilah Ali), Michael Michele (Veronica Porché), Michael Bentt (Sonny Liston), James Toney (Joe Frazier), Charles Shufford (George Foreman), Joe Morton (Chauncey Eskridge), Barry Shabaka Henley (Herbert Muhammad)

There is perhaps no greater sportsman of the 20th century than Muhammad Ali. Not for nothing did he call himself “The Greatest”. His impact on his sport is unrivalled, and his impact on our culture almost matches it. He’s one of those titanic figures that, even if you don’t care a jot for boxing, you know exactly who he is. Ali approved the film – and even more so, Smith’s performance – in Mann’s film that covers ten turbulent years in Ali’s life, from winning the title and changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft and losing his boxing licence and title, to reclaiming the title again in  the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”.

If there is a major flaw about Ali, it’s that Ali was a man who was about so much more than just boxing – but Ali struggles to be more than a film about a boxer. It’s hard today to look at the film and not think that a black director would have had more connection with the emotional, cultural and political turmoil that defined Ali’s life in the 60s and 70s. Mann mounts all this well – and gives it plenty of empathy in the film – but his outsider perspective perhaps contributes to the film’s coldness.

Coldness is the prime flaw of the film. There was no sportsman larger than life than Ali. No public figure who demanded attention more, no boxer who fought his battles as much with wit, convictions and passion as well as fists as Ali. A film of his life needs to capture some of this magic alchemy: it needs to feel like a film that conveys the man Ali was. While there is no doubt there was a melancholy in Ali, a quiet inscrutability behind the pizzazz, this film leans too much into this. It does this while never really telling us anything about Ali’s inner life.

As two marriages are formed and collapse, we don’t get an understanding of what drew Ali to, and caused him to turn away from, these women. His relationship with the Nation of Islam ebbs and flows throughout, but other than a few on-the-nose statements from Ali, we don’t get an idea of how his faith defines him. We get his brave stand against serving in the Vietnam war, but not the emotional and intellectual conviction behind it (other than parading a series of famous quotes).

The film is packed with famous black figures – from Malcolm X to rival boxers and Ali’s support team – his father and family, not to mention three of his wives, but the relationship the film is most invested in is Ali’s mutual appreciation/attention-feeding verbal duels with boxing correspondent Howard Cosell (a pitch-perfect vocal and physical impersonation by Jon Voight). There feels something wrong about this film about a black icon, that his relationship with a white man feels the best defined.

But then it’s also a flaw with the film that its most striking, inventive and memorable sequences are all pitch-perfect recreations of filmed events. Will Smith perfectly captures the vocal and physical grace of Ali, and brilliantly brings to life his interviews with Cosell and his larger-than-life press conferences. The boxing matches are compellingly filmed, a perfect mix of slow-mo and immersive angles (they were largely fought for real, with few punches pulled). Ali’s final KO of Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, after several rounds of exhausting Rope-a-dope, is punch-the-air in its triumphal filming and scintillating excitement. But all of this stuff you could actually watch for real today. How essential is a film that uses actors to recreate, with better camera angles and superior editing, stuff that was filmed when it actually happened? Essentially if I want to see Ali stunning the world with his words, or sending Foreman to the canvas, would I choose to watch the man himself, or Will Smith’s perfect impersonation of him doing it?

There is nothing wrong with Will Smith’s performance though. For all his Oscar-winning work in King Richard, this is his finest performance. Bulked up to an impressive degree (Smith spent a year preparing for the film), he’s got Ali’s movements in and out of the ring to a tee and the voice is an unparalleled capture of The Greatest’s. It’s a transformative, exact performance – Smith has just the right force of character for the patter, but also brings the part a soulful depth that the film struggles to explore further. It’s a superb performance.

Enough to make you wish this was in a better, more passionate film. Ali was at the centre of a storm of civil rights and class war in America. He became the public face of a black community struggling to make its voice heard, sick of tired of being treated like second-class citizens by a country they were expected to die for in battle. The politics of the time is lost – Mario van Peebles has a wonderful scene as a troubled Malcolm X, but even he feels like a neutered figure – and the cultural impact of Ali is diluted.

The film ends with captions that dwell on Ali’s later boxing career and his marriages. That’s fine. But this a man who was so much more than what he just did in the ring. He used his position to take a stand on vital issues in America, at huge personal cost, when thousands of others would have settled down to mouth platitudes and make money. He took on the government and refused a compromise that would have allowed him to continue boxing, because he felt the war and America’s domestic policies were wrong. He was a brave leader of men, at a time of furious injustice. The film conveys the facts, but none of the glorious passion. It’s a photocopy of Ali, which is why its best bits are recreations of filmed events. It can’t quite understand or communicate the tumultuous feelings behind racial injustice in the 60s and 70s. It could – it should – have been so much more.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)

Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!

We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?

Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.

What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.

It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.

With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.

This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.

It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).

Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.

Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Doubters and some very steep steps are conquered in the Best Picture winning Granddaddy of Sports movies

Director: John G. Avildsen

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Pennino), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith (Mickey Goodmill), Thayer David (Miles Jergens), Joe Spinell (Tony Gazzo), Tony Burton (Tony “Duke” Evers), Pedro Lovell (Spider Rico)

How many people have run up those steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art? So many, they’ve renamed them “the Rocky Steps” – and placed a statue of Stallone (from Rocky III) there. You can be sure everyone hummed Gonna Fly Now while they did it. It’s all a tribute to the impact of Rocky, the iconic smash hit that led to no less than seven sequels (and counting!) and, arguably, kickstarted the 80s in Hollywood (a decade Stallone would stand tall across with both Rocky and Rambo). The original Rocky mixes genre-defining delights and a feel-good, crowd-pleasing story with a surprisingly low-key setting that deals in a bit of Loachesque reality and social commentary.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a journeyman southpaw boxer, fallen on hard times. He’s making ends meet with a bit of loan shark enforcement (although of course he’s far too nice to actually break any bones) and getting seven bells knocked out of him at low-key fights. His trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) thinks he’s wasting his talent, and Rocky spends the day casting puppy dog eyes at Adrian (Talia Shire) sister of Rocky’s chancer best friend Paulie (Burt Young). But Rocky’s life changes overnight when Heavyweight Champion of the World Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) picks him at random as the nobody he will fight in a title bout (to get Apollo some free publicity). Can Rocky dedicate himself to training so he can “go the distance”?

Surely everyone knows by now, don’t they? The big fight only takes up the last ten minutes of the film. What we’ve spent our time doing beforehand is watching possibly the one of the best ever packaged feel-good stories, full of lovable characters and punch-the-air moments, directed with a smooth, professional (but personality free) charm by Avildsen. Rocky genuinely looked and felt like a little slice of Capra, a fairy tale triumph for the little guy struggling less against the world and more against his own doubts.

And it overcame some real heavyweights to win Best Picture: it knocked aside All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network in a shock win. Is Rocky better than those films? No. But is it more fun to watch? Yes, it probably is – and I would be willing to bet many more people have come back to it time and time again. It was also a triumph for Stallone, a jobbing actor, who produced a first draft of the script in three days and fought tooth and nail to make sure he played the lead.

And Stallone’s performance is absolutely central to its success (can you imagine what it would have been like with, say, James Caan in the role?). Stallone gives Rocky exactly the sort of humble, shy, sweetness that makes him easy to root for. Rocky is no genius, but he’s loyal, polite, well-meaning and Stallone taps into his little-used qualities of softness and naivety. Rocky is lovable because, for all the punching, he’s very gentle – just look at him make a mess of money collecting or the way he talks like a little kid with his pets. Stallone has a De Niroish – yes seriously! – quality here: he absent-mindedly shadow boxes throughout and gives a semi-articulate passion to his outburst at Mickey. His romance with Adrian is intimate and gentle. The whole performance feels lived in and real.

Real is actually what the whole film feels like – despite the fact it’s a ridiculous fairy tale of a boy who becomes a prince for a day. It helps that its shot deep in the streets of Philadelphia, on the cheap and on the fly in neighbourhoods and locations that feel supremely unstaged (Avildsen avoided the cost of extras by frequently shooting at night or very early morning). Even that run up the stairs was a semi-improvised moment. Rocky’s world is a recognisable working-class one that for all its roughness, also feels like a community in a way Ken Loach might be proud of (even the loan sharks are easy-going). Day-to-day the film manages to capture some of the feel of a socio-realist film with a touch of working-class charm.

It also makes a lovely backdrop to the genuinely sweet romance that grounds the film: and a recognition of the film’s smarts that a great crowd-pleaser needs a big dollop of romance alongside a big slice of action. Very adorably played with Talia Shire (original choices Carrie Snodgrass and Susan Sarandon were considered too movie-star striking), Adrian feels like a slightly mousy figure (and she is as sweet as Rocky) but also has a strength to her. She’s led a tough life as sister to the demanding Paulie (and Burt Young does a great job of making a complete shitbag strangely lovable and even a bit vulnerable), but it’s not stopped her feeling love. She and Rocky complement each other perfectly – gentle, shy people, who have something to prove to themselves and the world.

Is there a sweeter first date in movies than that solo trip to the ice rink? Cost cutting saved the day here (it was intended to be packed), that stolen few minutes skating while Rocky hurriedly tries to find out a much about Adrian as he can (an attendant counting down the time they have as they go), Adrian both charmed and bashful. It’s a lovely scene and goes a long way to us giving these characters the sort of emotional devotion that would keep audiences coming back for decades.

That and those boxing fights of course. Rocky’s final fight sets a template most of the rest of the films would pretty much follow beat for beat. But it’s still fun watching Rocky go toe-to-toe against all odds. Particularly as we know what is important to Rocky is not victory but proving something to himself. It helps as well that Stallone still looks like an underdog of sorts (over the next ten years he would turn himself into a slab of muscular stone).

Opposite him is Apollo Creed, with Carl Weathers channelling his very best Mohammad Ali. The underdog story makes for fine drama, and Rocky is superably packaged: there is a reason why so many other films essentially copied it. From montage, to an “against all odds” fight to Burgess Meredith’s grizzled trainer (a part you’d see time-and-again in the future from different respected character actors) there is a superb formula Rocky takes and repackages from classic films of the 40s and 50s and re-presents to huge and successful effect.

And it works because it’s so entertaining. Stallone is hugely winning in the lead role – more sweet and sensitive than he would be in later Rocky films (traits he would allow himself to rediscover in the more recent films) and it’s a perfectly packaged feel-good entertainment. But it’s also got a grounded sense of realism and reality, with an affecting love story. It’s one of the first – and best – films of the 80s, where formula and crowd-pleasing would be king.

Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes to the ring in Scorsese’s marvellous Raging Bull

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenora LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy Batts), Lori Anne Flax (Irma LaMotta)

On the surface, Raging Bull seems an unusual topic for Scorsese. A sports biopic? For this, the least sports-engaged director in Hollywood? Even in Scorsese’s most masculine works, sports are always noticeable for their absence. But Raging Bull is a masterpiece, a film whose legacy has seen it named as the greatest film of the 1980s, showcasing possibly Robert De Niro’s most famous performance. A brilliant combination of art, searing personal drama and boxing, Raging Bull may not always be the easiest watch in the world, but it’s a scintillating piece of cinema.

Opening in 1964, we see the overweight, ageing Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) preparing for a comic stand-up routine. From there, the film flashes back to the younger Jake in the ring, with the film following LaMotta’s boxing career. However, the real drama is in his out-of-the-ring relationships, with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second, younger, wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). LaMotta inside the ring is a bull, a man who can take unbelievable levels of punishment. Outside the ring though he is a fragile, paranoid, self-loathing man with a sharp self-destructive streak, whose envy and jealousy systematically destroys every relationship he touches.

Watching the film, its clear Scorsese knows very little about boxing but fortunately he knows everything about filmmaking. Raging Bull is a marvel, a superbly made and directed marvel. Scorsese’s triumphant decision was to shoot the film in black-and-white (some truly beautiful work from Michael Chapman). This gives the film both the classic, gorgeous feel of a 1940s Hollywood movie, but also allows the boxing matches themselves to take on an almost impressionistic artistry, with powerfully emotive monochrome images. The photography also creates a stark, documentary like sense of reality for the many scenes of domestic disharmony and violence, while later shots brilliantly allow LaMotta (lost in self-loathing and disgust) to almost disappear into the inky darkness of the frame. Raging Bull would be half the film it is, if it was in full colour.

Recovering from a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him, Scorsese was intimately familiar with self-destruction – and its perhaps this that drew him towards LaMotta’s jealousy, possibly the film’s major theme. LaMotta is a self-loathing individual, who sees little value in himself, who treats pummellings in the ring like just punishments and believes everyone is betraying him. It’s one of the finest films about the green-eyed monster ever made. Obsessed with his younger wife – whom LaMotta first encounters at age 15 and whom he marries as soon as she is legal – LaMotta also earnestly believes she is sleeping with every man around. It’s clear that these paranoid fantasies stem from his own disgust at himself, LaMotta’s own conviction that there is nothing of value in him.

It’s this jealousy that really destroys LaMotta, his trigger-happy temper seeing him able to switch on an instant from a calm – but monomaniacal – insistence that he just wants to know the truth about his wife, to indiscriminate violence. LaMotta is an impulsive, excessive creature who does everything to a huge degree, from doubting his wife, to shovelling food into his guts. Scorsese’s camerawork – particularly it’s La Dolce Vitaish love of Cathy Moriarty – reflects LaMotta’s internal dysfunction. It worships Moriarty in the same way LaMotta does, but also reflects his obsessive possessiveness.  

All of this is further captured in Robert De Niro’s iconic performance. De Niro won the Oscar for this stunning tour de force. Raging Bull became almost as famous for De Niro’s all-consuming preparation: he trained for months to achieve the physique and skill of a professional boxer (he even entered some professional bouts, winning two out of three). He then went completely the other way, the entire film going on a four month hiatus while De Niro went on an eating tour around Italy to pile on the pounds for the ageing, overweight LaMotta. At the time it seemed like no other actor had gone to such levels.

This focus on De Niro’s preparation sometimes obscures in the mind the genius of the actual performance, as if we have almost been blinded by the training and technique behind it. De Niro’s energy, his fury, his intelligent understanding of the fractured mind of the paranoid brilliantly brings LaMotta to life. So intense is the actor’s understanding of the disgust that lies at the heart of LaMotta’s personality that, even at his worst, the man is never completely unsympathetic. De Niro rages through scenes of jealous outbursts and violence, but he also has a childish gentleness of the man unable to understand the world around him, twice in the film collapsing into bursts of affecting tears. The older LaMotta is perhaps wiser, but just as inarticulate in emotions as his younger version and as unable to fix the damage. It’s a masterful performance, a physical and emotional tour-de-force.

De Niro also worked closely on the choreography of the boxing scenes, which allowed Scorsese the freedom to shoot these with an imagination and brilliance that had never been seen before. Each fight has its own unique feel, with Scorsese understanding that this sport is a neat parallel for how LaMotta sees life, a series of brutal clashes with pride and self-regard on the line. Scorsese’s fights are elemental clashes – the soundtrack frequently uses slowed sounds to create an animalistic roar.

The camera is frequently thrown into the ring with the pugilist – and LaMotta here is really more of a pugilist than a boxer, there is very little sense of tactics – with low angles and tight camerawork. Scorsese puts the camera – and the viewer – into the ring, making us part of the fights. Every punch and blow carries impact, and this is perhaps the most blood drenched boxing film in history, with the darkened liquid covering the faces of the fighters and dripping from the ropes of the ring. The fights reflect LaMotta’s mood, with one late fight seeming like an almost medieval battle, mist rolling in and the fighters flying at each other with a reckless abandon. There is nothing romantic about boxing here, it’s a grimy reality of violence with a purpose and brute strength, endurance challenges that only the strongest can emerge from.

LaMotta’s confidence and mastery of the ring is contrasted throughout with his lack of nous and understanding in the real world, and his ability to destroy everything he touches. Joe Pesci excels as his supportive brother who realises far too late the uncontrollable anger at the heart of this fighter, while Cathy Moriarty is also excellent as a young woman whose only real mistake is to want to live some part of her own life. Scorsese charts LaMotta’s destruction of both of these relationships, culminating in the washed up boxer pounding the walls of a jail cell weeping and screaming “Why! Why! Why!”, hatred for his self-destruction dripping from every pore.

Raging Bull looks unlike any other boxing film, instead like a perfectly formed art piece, its soundtrack full of classical tunes and its photography adjusting between the beauty of neo-realism and the cold realities of documentary film making. It’s superb, a masterful film, a work of art and also a profound understanding of the destructive impact of jealousy and self-loathing. Showcasing career defining work from De Niro, it’s no wonder this is still hailed as the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest of all time.

Fat City (1972)

Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges excel as boxers failing to live The Dream in Fat City

Director: John Huston

Cast: Stacy Keach (Billy Tully), Jeff Bridges (Ernie Munger), Susan Tyrell (Oma Lee Greer), Candy Clark (Faye), Nicholas Colasanto (Ruben), Art Aragon (Babe), Curtis Cokes (Earl)

The American Dream has an underbelly. For all those dreamers who find fame, fortune and glory in the Land of Free there are thousands who never made it. Thousands who stayed rooted at the bottom of the rung of the ladder and saw their dreams disappear and lives head into turnaround. Fat City – the good life, according to the slang of San Francisco, the crazy goal you’ll never achieve – is all about those left behind by their dreams.

Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is a former boxer, now down on his luck and now possibly struggling with alcoholism. Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges) is a young prospect who shows some promise in the ring. Both of them dream of getting into the limelight – but what hope do they have when it’s nearly impossible to turn your life around in smalltown America?

John Huston’s film is unflashily assembled, but carries a fundamental emotional power as it investigates with a simplicity and honesty the difficult dynamics of real life. It’s a film which has no pat answers, no simple solutions and doesn’t offer much in the way of hope. Which is not to say that it is a depressing vision of the world. Just a recognisable one. Because, sure, for most of us there isn’t any real chance of seeing our lives change. 

Huston’s film – brilliantly shot with a 1970’s muddy graininess mixed with flashes of revealing light by Conrad Hall – is wonderfully well observed and beautifully paced and keeps refreshingly loyal to its essentially downbeat vision of life. There is nothing forced in Huston’s well-paced touch and his embracing of the ordinariness of the drama and the lives of the characters. Because for both of them what we see in this film – and it ain’t much – is still clearly the high point of their life. Just getting into the ring and being beat (and only one fight in the film ends with one of our heroes winning – and even then he’s unaware of his win, he’s so punchdrunk) makes them something rather than nothing. These small moments are the best they can hope for.

Because both men have lives of nothingness in front of them. Keach’s Tully is a man whose best years are already behind them, but keeps up a touching air of hope and belief that maybe that could change, even while he drunkenly stumbles from one moment to the next. And maybe he did have something in the past – but he certainly doesn’t have something to come. Keach captures this superbly – like a reliable pro embracing what he feels might be the highlight of his career – investing Tully with a gentleness but also touch of fantasy, a man who can’t quite accept where his life is, but despite a lack of bitterness he’s still a man balancing fantasies. 

Jeff Bridges makes a perfect balance to this amiable failure of a man as Ernie, a young man who may well have more promise than Tully but lacks any sense of personal drive. He’s a friendly but empty shell. While Tully at least goes through spells of wanting success – even if he drifts and falls into alcoholic patches of non-achievement and becomes lost in recollections – Ernie has no desire. He’ll allow himself to be put forward but will do no work at all to push himself forward. He’s a young man with no hurry, a man who seems destined to never achieve anything because he has no desire to do so. It’s a great performance of amiable emptiness from Bridges.

But then you hope that Ernie won’t be heading to the alcoholism that consumes Tully and his romantic interest Orma. Played by an Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell, Orma is the picture of a failed life, a semi-bloated, rambling alcoholic who oscillates between small insights and far more common drunken ramblings and bitter drunken whining but believes strongly in what she does. Huston’s film places her firmly as much of a drifter through life as Ernie in her way, taking up with Tully while her lover serves prison time – and moving easily and with little impact from one domestic set-up to another. Tyrell and Keach give outstandingly strong performances of drunkenness, never over-playing and totally convincing in their slurred speech, attempts to not appear as drunk as they are and emotional swings from calm to sudden and consuming fury.

But then what is there to look forward to in this life than the next drink? Certainly not the fights. For all the dreams of trainer Ruben (Nicolas Colosanto – very good) to find the next big thing, every fight we see is a tragic and painful affair mostly ending in defeat. Ruben drives carfuls of beaten, ring fodder from place to place, watches them get duffed up and then takes them home all the while dreaming of a title shot. It is dreams shared by Tully – even while we watch his slow, alcoholic fuelled body struggle to get through a few minutes of shadow boxing.

But then that’s the message of Fat City the anti-Rocky – and probably more realistic for it. Huston;s simple touch and pure vision help to make this one of his finest films, his unfussy and naturalistic camera encouraging truthful and powerful performances from his leads. And every small moment is full of it, including a marvellous wordless sequence that sees Tully’s Mexican opponent arrive in town (on a rundown bus), wordlessly check into a motel, piss blood and then head to the ring to be (only just) beaten – a moment of victory so fleeting and small it barely counts (and is only a hiatus on Tully’s return to shambling from bar to bar on the streets). The American Dream is a great thing – but for many people it’s just that: a dream.

The Boxer (1997)

Daniel Day-Lewis returns from 14 years in prison in this passionate but obvious film about the Troubles in Ireland, The Boxer

Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Danny Flynn), Emily Watson (Maggie), Brian Cox (Joe Hamill), Ken Stott (Ike Weir), Gerard McSorley (Harry), David Hayman (Hamill’s aide), Ciaran Fitzgerald (Liam)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan collaborated before this on the stirring, passionate and angry In the Name of the Father, a film that acutely analysed the impact of the Troubles on ordinary people. That film was about a miscarriage of justice that ruined lives. This film tries to cover similar ground, but somehow the force of the narrative never really comes together as much as it should.

The Boxer himself Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after 14 years, due to his peripheral involvement with the IRA. He’s guilty for sure, but has played the game inside and refused to name names. He comes out still in love with Maggie (Emily Watson) – but she is married to another man currently in prison (putting her out of bounds by the code pushed by the IRA). Making things more complex, her father Joe (Brian Cox) is a leading IRA man currently part of negotiations with the British government. Danny and his former trainer Ike (Ken Stott), now a struggling alcoholic, decide to reopen the local boxing gym, making it a denomination free facility for all the community. But their efforts to try and build bridges are not welcomed by all – not least local IRA enforcer Harry (Gerard McSorley) who makes it his mission to destroy Danny.

Why does The Boxer not work as well it should do? It’s got nothing to do with the commitment of the cast, all of whom offer excellent performances. Day-Lewis, inevitably, spent almost three years in preparation learning to be a boxer. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t really give anyone here something interesting to play with. Instead it makes fairly familiar points about the dangers when we let hatred govern our lives, and carefully sorts and packages most of its characters into goodies and baddies, while making sure in every single scene we are always told exactly what we should be thinking and feeling.

It’s a flaw that I’ve often found in other of Sheridan’s films. He’s a passionate but rather blunt director, full of righteous anger and a determination to make films that carry a social message. But he often makes these points without subtlety or imagination. Here we get an Ireland shot almost completely in a washed-out blue, with the tensions of a community increasingly simplified down into rotten apples playing on the fears and resentments of different groups to continue the spiral of hate.

In the middle of this, Sheridan places a love story between Day-Lewis and Watson’s character that both of them play with a tender commitment and an emotional vulnerability, but which never really invests the audience. It always feels too heavily built on cinematic contrivance – with its long separation, new relationships and social obstacles put in the way. Much as Day-Lewis and Watson give it their all, they never manage to make it feel anything other than it is – a rather tired “movie” love story, that moves it characters through familiar beats.

More interesting than this by far are the real tensions in a community that is tired of violence and wants to move on, but keeps on getting dragged back into old ways because there is simply too much history to overcome. The most interesting character by far is Brian Cox’s IRA bigwig, a man carrying a burden of blood from the past but has an actual desire to see the country change. A film about a man like this, trying to walk a tightrope between negotiations with the British and keeping his own furious foot-soldiers in line (when all they want to do is to bomb something) would have carried real impact. Sadly, it’s too often relegated to the margins of the story while the film follows the immediate social impact of Danny trying to find a third way between war and surrender.

Peaceful co-operation is what Danny wants, and the gym for all people in the Belfast community is how he intends to go about it. Boxing itself is peripheral to the film – what really matters is that idea of bringing people together, of giving them something they can all own and feel some pride in. It’s an idea that Ike believes in above all things, and the prospect of recreating it with Danny’s release from prison gives his life real meaning (Ken Stott is very good as a character who is something of a cliché but still carries a real emotional wallop). Ike and Danny’s vision offers the community a possibility of moving on – something some are not ready to take on.

Not least Harry, played by a quietly fuming Gerard McSorley, prowling scenes like a man who can’t wait to hit someone. The film does at time suggest that there are “good” IRA and “bad” IRA chaps (with Harry firmly in the bad), but it does at least show that these extremists are a danger to everyone, not least the people they claim to protect. Harry’s prejudice towards Danny is motivated above all by his fear of Ireland’s way of life changing, and in that way it forms a decent expression of the film’s core message about the difficulty – but essentialness – of moving on.

Sheridan’s film is a cry for hope and opportunity at a difficult time – and its alarming watching it now to remember what a ghastly place Northern Ireland was at this time, when it’s so well known today as the Game of Thrones backlot. It’s just a shame that the story feels like such a – well – story. The film feels like a slightly over-cooked melodrama, and as the character clashes you expect and the twists you can see coming start to work their way into the narrative, it feels like the central story of a man wanting to make a better life for himself and his neighbourhood gets lost in the mix.

And it does. That’s the basic weakness of The Boxer in the end. For all of Day-Lewis’ skill and Watson’s emotional truth, their story just ends up feeling not that important, you feel that the more interesting things are happening on the margins: Cox’s IRA man feels more worthy of a film, while Stott gets some of the most electric moments of emoting. Sheridan’s film has fire in it, but it ends up burning up his main narrative, while the story relies too heavily on melodrama and cliché. Eventually it fizzles out and you end up not feeling as outraged as you should. Where the true story of In the Name of the Father helped control Sheridan’s spoon-feeding tendencies, here the fictional story allows full reign for the sort of narrative twists that end up feeling a little too tired and obvious.

Creed II (2018)

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan take to the ring once more in Rocky IV/Creed remake Creed II

Director: Steven Caple Jr

Cast: Michael B Jordan (Adonis Creed), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca Taylor), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Andre Ward (Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler), Wood Harris (Tony “Little Duke” Evers), Brigitte Nielsen (Ludmila Drago), Milo Ventimiglia (Robert Balboa), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle)

After eight films, in a franchise that has been running for over 40 years, you have to ask if there are any original stories left to tell in the Rocky universe. The answer? Yes there probably are. Does this film tell one? Well no not really, even if there are moments where you feel it wants to. Instead it basically gives us the formula we expected going into it.

Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) is finally heavyweight champion of the world – but why is he so glum? Maybe because he still can’t seem to shake off the shadow of his deceased father Apollo Creed. So he finds it hard to resist when Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo, emerges from disgrace in the Ukraine (I’m not sure the makers of this film realise that the Ukraine is different country to Russia). Drago brings with him his super-fighter son Viktor (Florian Munteanu, virtually mute for the whole film) who challenges Adonis to a title fight. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) doesn’t approve and wants nothing to do with it. Adonis’ pregnant wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) isn’t sure it’s a good idea. But Adonis gives it a go – and is left hospitalised after a mauling, though Viktor is disqualified in the fight on a technicality. Adonis has to rebuild his confidence from nothing, lay to rest his daddy issues and, of course, take on Viktor in a rematch – stop me if you have heard any of this before.

Because you almost certainly have. This is a film that repackages themes from Creed, the basic plot structure of Rocky IV ,and mixes in elements from several other films to come up with a sort of Frankenstein’s monster that feels familiar rather than fresh. Practically every beat can be predicted in advance, and there are no surprises or challenges to your expectations. Essentially everything plays out so closely to what you might expect, and is so clearly signposted in the film, that it’s almost impossible to spoil. 

Which is a shame as there is a better, more intelligent film in here which is thrashing around trying to get out. There was a film to be made here about the shadows fathers cast over us. After all, Adonis and Viktor are basically fighting the battles of their fathers and adopted fathers rather than their own. For Adonis in particular, his struggles to live in the shadow of his father is hammered home with decreasing subtly as the film goes on. Director Steven Caple Jnr was clearly so pleased with his framing of a shot where Adonis trains while a window with a picture of his father towers above him that he repeated it several times in the film. It’s as far as the film goes to questioning the wisdom of these people being weighed down by legacies.

Because this is a film that is trying to have its cake and eat it. All of the characters close to Adonis oppose his first fight with Viktor – Rocky even tells him it’s not his fight – but come the second fight all these characters are cheering him on in the rematch. It seems the only way to escape your father’s shadow… is to climb deeper under it. (Interesting note: all references to Creed being the son of a girlfriend of Creed’s rather than with his wife are deleted in the film, which feels odd.)

You know what would have been interesting? Perhaps Adonis thinking he doesn’t need to win the fight to match his father’s achievements. Or perhaps Adonis deciding that fighting alone proved his point, and he didn’t need to match Rocky’s success in Rocky IV. Or deciding that he didn’t need to rise to the bait. Instead the film shows him pushing against his father’s legacy – and finally doubling down on it in order to create his own legacy. Thinking about it doesn’t make a load of sense.

It would also have been nice if the intervening years had changed Ivan Drago in some way – but he’s established very early on as a villain, and that’s it. Of course this is partly due to Lundgren’s limitations as an actor – wisely it’s nearly half an hour before Ivan speaks, and he does only one scene in English – but it would have been nice if Drago perhaps expressed some regret to suggest he has changed in some way since 1986. Viktor has an equally unclear trajectory – Ivan’s determination to reclaim glory via his son seems to be leading towards some bust up between them, but it never does (is it just me or does Viktor seem like he almost hates his domineering father?). The film tries to pay this off with a moment of familial affection between the two but it comes from nowhere and seems unclear.

So the story is predictable. So predictable by the way, that the film seriously sags in the middle as we wait (with no tension) for Adonis to decide he will get into the ring again and fight Viktor. It also has a slightly manipulative relationship between Bianca and Adonis (Tessa Thompson is wasted again in a bit of a nothing role – and her musician character is saddled with some of the worst music you’ll ever hear). But it’s still a well made film. The fight scenes in the ring are of course excellent as always. The main actors are all good – Jordan is very convincing and Stallone continues to get a load of pathos from the ageing Rocky.

But it’s just a little bit dull and familiar. There is too much of the same old same old here. Where are the new ideas? Even all these father themes were explored to a conclusion in Creed – why retread it all again? What does this do that is new and different – nothing really. It’s another chapter in their lives. But nothing else. And with the birth of Adonis’ daughter we’ve got to get ready for a whole new series of films in 30 years, as Amora Creed takes on Clubber Lang’s grandson’s nephew in Kid Creed. Or something like that.

Creed (2015)

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan keep the flag flying in Rocky relaunch Creed

Director: Ryan Coogler

Cast: Michael B Jordan (Adonis Creed), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday), Wood Harris (Tony “Little Duke” Evans), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Anthony Bellow (“Pretty” Ricky Conlan)

Remember Rocky IV? It’s a bizarre film that opens with the plot twist of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s rival-turned-friend, slain in the ring by a Russian fighting monstrosity. Well that film, for all its rubbishness, partly redeems itself by being the jumping-off point for this spirited and well-made re-launch of the series. (Strange as it is for a film as grounded as this one to bounce off from such a bizarre piece of 1980s nonsense as Rocky IV.)

Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) is the son of Apollo  Creed from an extramarital affair. Adopted as a young boy by Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Creed grows up to be a man who yearns to fight as a boxer – although whether this is motivated by a desire to get closer to his father or to try and outdo him the film subtly plays around with as a major theme. He approaches Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him, who eventually reluctantly agrees, inspired by seeing something of himself in the young man. When Creed unexpectantly lands a title shot – while Rocky deals with increasing ill health – both men have to come together to fight for their pride and future. 

Creed is a film that captures what works about this franchise, and repackages basically a very familiar story (this is almost point-for-point a Rocky remake) with a great deal of dynamism. Coogler, a talented and original director, brings imagination and intelligence to essentially pulpy material and makes something old seem new again. It does this while still homaging the previous films (even the rubbish ones!) at several points, from small stills on the walls of Rocky’s restaurant, to bit-part characters, to the marvellously beguiling score that gently riffs on the familiar motifs from the series.

It’s also helped by a fine performance from Michael B Jordan with a pretty much spot-on re-interpretation of the Rocky character in a new form. Jordan’s Creed is impulsive and quick-tempered, but also kind and charming. In fact it’s refreshing to have such a clean-living and well-brought up hero centring a film! Jordan gets some intelligent and subtle character work over Creed’s mixed feelings for his father: both resentful of never knowing him and also desperate to gain a sort of posthumous approval. It’s a basic daddy-problems story line but it’s done with a lot of subtlety.

Stallone’s performance as the ageing, slightly world-weary, lonely Rocky is another stand-out. This film’s Rocky is punched out, weighted down by life and unable to get over the sadness of his wife’s death; he sees young Creed as both a chance to find a new family and a reminder of his guilt over Apollo’s death. It’s a fine performance he gives here, detailed, moving and pretty much perfectly judged, with real moments of humour among the pathos. There is also an extraordinarily subtle make-up job on Stallone to make him appear far weaker and vulnerable than he actually is. It’s probably his best performance since the original film.

Coogler’s direction is spot-on, the pacing of the film is pretty much perfect. He shoots the fight scenes with particular freshness, the camera darting in and around the fighters as they beat each other in the ring. This immediacy adds a lot to these sequences – although the heavily choreographed fights, while great cinema, barely resemble a real boxing match! The film also balances really well both the training montages (many of which affectionately homage similar sequences from the early films) with a sensitive and well-constructed romance plotline between Creed and singer Bianca (well played by Tessa Thompson, who makes a lot of what is on paper quite an underwritten part).

It’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong. The decision to cast actual boxers in pivotal roles doesn’t always pan out, not least Anthony Bellow as Creed’s title rival (surely it’s easier to train up an actor than try to teach a boxer to act). For the English viewers it’s hard not to feel a few sniggers at the slightly strange sight of a title fight taking place at Goodison Park of all places (surely this film is the closest any Everton fan has got to seeing major silverware). 

But its affectionate reworking of the tropes of the series works really well, it’s extremely well-acted, it has intelligent character work for both Creed and Balboa who become fully rounded and intriguing characters, and it’s very well directed. It becomes a film about the importance of family as much as it is about legacy, about the two lead characters having to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones and build a new family. For all that the events in the film are pretty close to a straight re-tread of Rocky, this is such a lovely, heartfelt film it’s hard not to like it a lot.

Rocky IV (1985)

Sly Stallone takes on the towering Dolph in Cold War ending boxing fable Rocky IV

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Brigitte Nielsen (Ludmilla Drago), Tony Burton (“Duke” Evers), Michael Pataki (Nicolai Koloff)

By 1985, Rocky Balboa had come from behind to overcome adversity through sheer willpower no fewer than three times. We’d seen him come from obscurity to fight Apollo Creed, lose his money, fight Creed again, win, get shamed in the ring and lose his belt and trainer on the same night, then come storming back to beat Mr T. We’d had training montages aplenty as, for every major fight, Rocky needed to learn how to box in a new way. We’d seen him take punishment like nobody’s business in the ring as better opponents pummelled him before coming up against Rocky’s iron will. So in Rocky IV we got… well, more or less exactly all that. Again. But in Russia.

The ideas had gone, the inspiration had tanked. There was nothing new to do. Rocky IV is a very short film – and it could easily be shorter again if the padding had been removed. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) takes on Russian uber-fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in the ring in a charity match. Drago is a mountain of Soviet athletic engineering and he beats Creed so badly, Creed dies. In Rocky’s arms of course. So Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) does what a man has to do – he’ll fly to Siberia and he’ll fight Drago on his own turf, all to avenge the memory of Creed. And for American pride. And along the way he’ll only go and get the Russians to rethink this whole Cold War thing.

Rocky IV is so painfully short of ideas, you’ll feel like you’ve seen it even before you’ve seen it. In fact, at least 10 minutes of it you have. The film opens with essentially a complete recap of Rocky III, including the closing scenes of that film. Later Rocky goes driving to the airport. Along the way he hits the radio in his Lamborghini (the product placement in this film is shockingly crude) and listens to the whole of No Easy Way Out by Robert Tepper, while the film plays a montage that recaps all three of the previous films. The scene might as well end with the title of the song appearing in the bottom left hand corner like an old MTV video. (Stallone’s rolodex was obviously well thumbed, as James Brown later pops up to deliver a rendition of the whole of Living in America.) This sort of stuff pads the plot absurdly.

Either side of that, we have two long training montages comparing the homespun honesty of Rocky’s training with the naughty, doping inspired, technological training of Drago. But then this is not a subtle film. Any film that opens with two boxing gloves – one American, one Soviet – flying towards each other and exploding isn’t exactly pulling its punches on the subtlety front. The political commentary in the film is laughably naïve, from Creed’s inane chatter about American pride, to the laughable depiction of the Soviet officials as distant Bond villains, to Rocky’s closing speech after his victory (spoilers) with its infamous “If I can change, you can change!” refrain. Did the makers think they were putting a hammer to the Berlin Wall here or something?

Most of the rest of the film moves between padding and the bizarre. Almost every single scene ends with a freeze frame, possibly one of the most clunky visual devices you could hope to see. Stallone as director focuses his camera with such loving intensity on his own chiselled frame that it’s almost a sort of camp classic. Some of the conversation and physicality between Creed and Rocky is almost laughable in its inadvertent homoeroticism. 

Then there is plenty of dumb stuff as well. I’d totally forgotten this film showpieces a robot servant whom Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) spends most the film treating like a hen-pecking wife. This robot is a bizarre sci-fi addition to the story, which seems to have walked in from a different film.

The fighting when it comes is pretty good, I’ll give it that. Yes literally everything in the boxing ring is so predictable you could write it down in advance, but as always there is something quite moving about watching Rocky take such punishment to emerge as victor. Heck even the Soviet crowd start chanting his name (take that Cold War!). But it’s fine. Drago isn’t even a character (he doesn’t even really have any lines), but that doesn’t really matter as its Lundgren’s size and strength that sells the show (he towers over famously titchy Stallone).

Rocky IV is predictable hokum, that offers precisely zero surprises and must have taken a wet weekend to write. Its bizarre robot sub plot, matched with the endless music videos, montages and flashbacks to old movies, shows that the well was pretty much dry by the time this film came around. But you know the formula still sorta works, and you still cheer as Rocky turns an epic pummelling into triumph. Carl Weathers is pretty good, Creed’s death is as strangely affecting as it is totally ludicrous (never in a million years, by the way, would either of the fights in this film be allowed to continue) but Rocky IV’s okay. And of course it ended the Cold War.