Are you one of those who believe that boxing is a terrible sport because it requires its participants to deliberately try to injure the opponent to win the match—and yet find yourself drawn to films about the sport any way? I know I am, having enjoyed The Champ, Rocky, and a ring full of others. Last year’s The Fighter, based on the true story of two brothers and their families, who fought almost as much among themselves as in the ring, made my Top Ten Films list for my Visual Parables.
The appeal of such films, of course, is not the fighting, but the events beyond the ring, with underdog characters facing great odds outside the ring as well as within it. And now two more films are out centering on the fight game, though not exactly the traditional sport.
The sport in Warrior (Rated R) is Mixed Martial Arts, which involves kicking and wrestling, as well as boxing. There are two estranged brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) a schoolteacher and the other Tommy (Tom Hardy) a Marine gone AWOL from Iraq. Each has good motives for going back to a sport they had given up years before. They have not spoken in years, but the one thing they agree on is that their alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is no good, even if he has quit drinking and is trying to reform his life and reconnect with them. No one thinks either has a chance in the Big Tournament, but of course they do advance—and when they meet each other in the ring, we are not sure for whom to root. One of the strangest reconciliation scenes climaxes a long action sequence that keeps the audience leaning toward the screen.
Real Steel (Rated PG-13) surprised me in that it was not a pale imitation of the Transformer movies, but turned out to be a heart-felt father/son story. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, once a boxing contender who came along too late to make a name for himself, 8-foot robots displacing human boxers in the ring. The sport of 2020 thus adds the crashing excitement of demolition derby to that of boxing. Director Shawn Levy’s film owes much to The Champ in that the appealing Dakota Goyo plays Charlie’s scrappy 11 year-old son Max. Unable to handle the responsibility of fatherhood, Charlie had left his wife shortly after Max was born and had not seen him since. Now his wife has died, leaving Max’s fate in Charlie’s hands. Her sister and wealthy husband want the boy, but have to leave the country during the summer for business reasons. Charlie secretly works out a deal with the husband to sell custody of Max for a large sum of money, but the deal requires him to take care of his son while they are away.
Max is less than happy to be with the father who had never been a part of his life, but Charlie’s work of piecing together a robot to fight in underground matches intrigues the boy, who soon displays an aptitude for robots. Through a series of events, which includes their finding in a junkyard an old but still intact robot which they call Atom, the two draw closer together. With the boy’s brains and Charlie’s boxing skills they turn the small robot (of course it has to be small compared to its opponents, or this wouldn’t be an underdog tale) into a formidable fighter.
If you liked Rocky and The Iron Giant, chances are you’ll like this one too, both films being paid tribute by the director. At least in this film there are no humans in the ring absorbing the terribly punishing blows from the opponent.