Tag Archives: Boxing

Creed (2015)

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As a fan of the Rocky franchise and Michael B Jordan, I was desperate to watch Creed, the spin-off about the son of the late Apollo Creed, the initial rival and subsequent best friend of Rocky Balboa. What made it even more exciting for me is that the film is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the man who brought out the best in Jordan in the hard-hitting, gritty and emotional Fruitvale Station.

And so it pleases me to declare that Creed is an absolute winner, a powerful, energetic and moving boxing drama that manages to effectively milk the cache and nostalgia of the Rocky franchise without coming across as cheap or cheesy.

While this year’s other boxing blockbuster, Southpaw, disappointed me to no end because of its lack of realism and over-abundance of predictability and cliches, Creed impresses with relative realism, pleasant surprises and by embracing the right cliches at the right times. The resulting experience is night and day; in boxing terms it’s a first round knockout by Creed.

The first reason why Creed succeeds is because it’s driven by wonderfully developed central characters — Adonis (Jordan) and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). As per my usual policy, I’m not going to divulge anything more than the basic premise you already know, though I will say it is best to avoid the film’s second (and more detailed) trailer due to spoilers.

It would have been easy to just bring back Rocky in his capacity as a trainer like in Rocky V and make Apollo a stock hero with a typical rags to riches trajectory (like Billy Hope Southpaw), but Coogler (with apparent minimal input from a very respectable Stallone) manages to flesh out both of them extremely well and give them worthwhile personal journeys.

I loved Rocky’s development since the last film and there are tragic elements to his story I found surprisingly moving. On the other hand, you might have a preconceived notion of who Adonis is, but there are many aspects to his character I did not anticipate, and I enjoyed the little bits of misdirection that Coogler throws our way to play with our prejudices and expectations. Though this is ultimately still a Rocky-type movie with typical elements from the franchise, I liked how Coogler added wrinkles to the story to remind us that it’s not a clean-cut fairytale and there are harsh realities to be faced. It’s not 100% realism of course, but it adds an edge to the characters and their situations.

The performances are spectacular. Jordan deserves as much praise as Gyllenhaal received for Southpaw (he’s easily just as ripped too), while Stallone deserves the supporting actor nominations he has been getting, reminding me that Stallone can actually act (his running around in platform boots shooting baddies with his buddies in recent years has made me forget). The chemistry between them is fantastic, and I’m happy that this really is a Creed movie as opposed to a clever disguise for another Rocky movie.

In terms of the action, the boxing scenes in Creed are excellent. The training sequences look authentic, while inside the ring the fights are generally well-choreographed, though still slightly on the wild brawling side of the Rocky films of old rather than the realistic technical brilliance of true elite-level boxing. Thanks to the creative camera angles Coogler adopts, there is a bit of that “fly on the wall” feel, which is great because it adds an extra dimension to the usual TV-style presentation or first-person point of view.

As with Star Wars: The Force AwakensCreed has taken an old formula and rebooted it, and in my humble opinion it might have done it even more effectively. It’s a mixture of the old and new, going back to the root of the Rocky Balboa underdog story but with an intriguing new lead and twist. There’s nostalgia but also freshness, solid boxing action but also moving drama. Creed is without doubt the lineal boxing movie of 2015.

4.25 stars out of 5

Southpaw (2015)

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I still remember when I saw the first promo pic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloodied, ripped body for Southpaw, and turning gay for a second or two. Gyllenhaal had been in pretty good shape for Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs, though the intense boxing training he underwent for Southpaw took his physique to a level that even earned praise from the world’s most renowned bodybuilder, The Terminator himself (during a joint appearance on the Graham Norton Show).

What excited me more than Gyllenhaal’s physique was the promise of a genuinely good boxing movie. As an avid fan of the sweet science, I know just how rare boxing movies are, and how virtually non-existent good boxing movies are. But Fuqua has proven himself to be a skilled director through stellar efforts such as Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, and the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal was coming off a downright phenomenal performance in Nightcrawler. Surely the two of them together could produce some magic.

Or so I thought.

And so it pains me to say that Southpaw was a huge disappointment, probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Despite packing so much promise, the film turned out to be a two-hour cliche fest filled with predictable plot points, stereotypes and unrealistic depictions of the boxing world. Not even Fuqua’s solid direction or Gyllenhaal’s abs could save it.

The story revolves around Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a hard-nosed, temperamental world champion light-heavyweight boxer raised through Brooklyn’s tough orphanage system with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams). All boxing movies are ultimately underdog stories, and Southpaw is no different, regardless of whether the protagonist starts from the bottom or from the top.

I don’t want to divulge much more about the plot than that, though if you’ve seen a single trailer or read any reviews with spoilers (most of them have) you’ll pretty much be able to guess all the main plot points from start to finish. Actually, you might be able to do that even if you haven’t.

There were multiple times during the film when I thought, I hope cliche X doesn’t happen next because it sure looks like it’s gonna happen! And then of course, BOOM, it happens exactly the way I feared. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly where you’ve seen specific plot points or scenes before, but it will all certainly feel very familiar. For some audiences, that safe feeling of predictability is welcome, but for me it was a low blow.

My problems with the movie really begin with the title, Southpaw. As a natural left-hander myself, I was hoping to see a southpaw protagonist as the title suggests. But guess what? The title is misleading! It’s not completely irrelevant to the story, but it’s almost as though they thought, hey, Southpaw would be a nice name for a boxing movie, nearly finish filming it, and then suddenly realise, Oh shit, we need to do something about that title! (The real reason is because the film was originally written for Eminem, a lefty in real life).

Next, I found the world in the movie to be lacking in authenticity. It’s hard for me to get into details without giving away spoilers, but essentially the boxing world that is depicted in the film is not how things work in real life. Not for big time boxing stars in the modern era (and that’s what Hope is — white, undefeated, exciting style, good-looking, etc). Everything from the promotional aspects to the financial aspects is manipulated to suit the narrative, and it sticks out like dogs balls for people who know a thing or two about how the frustratingly rigid fight game works these days.

These are just some general comments and not spoilers, but basically top-tier pay-per-view events need at least several months to promote. Even the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the biggest fight in boxing history, had about three months, and that was regarded as the absolute minimum even taking into account that the fight didn’t need a typical promotional tour because it would sell itself. Top-tier PPV draws and their promoters — on both sides — would not take on megafights at short notice (you need at least an eight-week training camp). Popular former champions — especially those still in their physical prime — wield considerable clout in the sport and will have no problem finding a manager or setting up a fight people will pay to see. And the amount of money PPV stars make these days is easily in the millions per fight, and if you’ve had a long and successful career you’ll be set for life many times over. We’re not even talking about the generational stars like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who have in excess of US$400 million each in career ring earnings. Even second-tier or third-tier guys a lot of casual fans might not have heard of, like Paulie Malignaggi from Brooklyn, who boasts a modest career record of 33-7 (with 7 KOs) and generally fights on the undercards of big bouts, has an estimated net worth of about US$8 million. I’m not saying that the film ignores all these things completely, but just that it glosses over them with convenient cliches.

And for all the talk about brutally realistic boxing sequences and really getting punched, I actually didn’t find them that authentic. Kudos for getting real HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and using the same cameras as the PPV telecasts, but if you watch a lot of real boxing you might think some of the fight scenes in Southpaw look quite choreographed. Not all of them, but the close ups in particular look very methodical. It might be the slightly exaggerated reactions to the punches or the studio-made sound effects, or perhaps it’s the stark contrast between the unorthodox brawling style of Hope and real world-class boxers. Granted, we’re a long way away from the arcade-game boxing of the early Rocky movies, though in terms of authenticity, Southpaw‘s fight scenes are still a notch or two below Ali and The Fighter (which have the advantage of real footage to emulate) and probably fall on the same level as Rocky Balboa. Watch them on YouTube and see if you agree. In fact, the most naturalistic boxing scenes in the entire film were from a short sparring session featuring real professional fighter Victor Ortiz.

The biggest problem with the movie is the lazy script. I mean, come on, naming the central character “Hope” so you can toss in a bunch of puns isn’t exactly subtle. Apart from the boxing issues I noted above, there are a lot of little nagging things. If you break down the major themes and plot points in the story — I’m not going to spell them out — you’ll see that they’ve pretty much all been recycled from the Rocky franchise. There are also unresolved issues that shouldn’t be unresolved, like a major incident early in the film (given away in the trailers) that is kind of forgotten until it is disposed of at the end with a throwaway line. And the fact that it was unresolved in the first place lacks logic and common sense.

Some of the errors are littered throughout the dialogue and can be glaring. I’m going to break a rule here and divulge a couple of mini-spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Otherwise, highlight the white text below to read me rant. 

At the start of the film, a reporter asks Hope whether there is anyone left for him to fight. Seconds later, Hope’s arch nemesis, a top up-and-coming fighter he has never faced, appears and challenges him to a bout. Why would the reporter ask such a stupid question when the answer is so obviously standing right there? The commentary written for the HBO commentators also has these problems, such as moronically declaring that a previously undefeated fighter’s career is over after one loss.

I feel bad for Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s obvious he put a lot of work and effort into this role. But surely a guy who has been in so many fantastic movies can tell Southpaw isn’t very good. It would have been interesting had Eminem gotten the role instead, but clearly Gyllenhaal is the better actor and stronger screen presence. Oh well, at least he got really ripped and learned how to box. And Eminem still got to a write a song for the movie.

As for the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker does his usual shtick as an old trainer with serious skills and a heart of gold. It’s the type of role the Oscar-winner can sleepwalk through, and probably did. I like the guy who plays Hope’s nemesis, Miguel Gomez, who might not be a great actor but at least looks like a boxer. The problem for me is that he keeps reminding me of his character in TV’s campy zombie show The Strain. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get to do much, and the young girl who plays their daughter, Oona Laurence, doesn’t particularly stand out, though I blame some of that on the dialogue given to her. No such excuse for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who plays Hope’s manager. He’s flat-out horrible.

A lot of my harshness in this review stems from expectations and my fondness for the sport. Casual viewers who don’t think as much about the intricacies and are simply looking for an uplifting sports movie might find it a lot more enjoyable than I did. I wish I felt differently about the movie because I can see what they were trying to do with it — an underdog story of redemption that’s character-focused and fuelled by a moving father-daughter relationship — but ultimately the script and execution is so heavy-handed that I couldn’t see past all the flaws.

If I have to end this review with a boxing analogy I would say this: They say the  most devastating knockout punches in boxing are the ones you don’t see coming. Southpaw may hit very hard, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be because you can see all the punches coming from a mile away.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Grudge Match (2013)

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Rocky vs Raging Bull — sounds like a great idea!

That’s pretty much all Grudge Match is — a good idea. About a thousand years ago, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro were a couple of world champion light heavyweights who fought each other twice and handed the other their only loss. For some reason, the grudge match between the two fated rivals never eventuated, and the two boxers just went on with their separate lives, still hating each other. Now, in the present, both are old and miserable, but a chance encounter at a video game motion capture session sparks renewed interest in the long-overdue third fight.

The rest of the movie acts as a lead-up to the fight, as we watch Stallone and De Niro training and trying to get into shape. The personal story arc for Stallone is trying to mend his relationship with Kim Basinger (smoking hot for a 60 year old, by the way), who might have been the reason he pulled out of the grudge match all those years ago. For De Niro, it’s all about his estranged son, played by The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal (who could not be more different from his character in The Wolf of Wall Street). None of all this drama is horrible but it feels pretty boiler plate.

It’s not clear how old Stallone and De Niro’s characters are in the movie, but they can’t be too far off from their real-life ages of 67 and 70. Which means, of course, that the ludicrous match would never have been sanctioned in real life, and there’s no way anyone would be even remote interested in the bout. But I suppose that is the point of the movie — to create a fight so insane that it’s funny.

Well, except Grudge Matchdespite being labelled a comedy, is actually not very funny.

I sensed a lot of missed opportunities when watching this film, and kept wondering why it wasn’t funnier. There’s only so many old and fat jokes viewers can stand before it starts getting boring. I could almost picture the writers sitting in a room together brainstorming ideas, and chuckling to themselves because the jokes sound so good on paper. But when translated to the big screen, it all becomes obvious and cliched. And sadly, most of the mildly amusing sequences in the film were all shown in the trailers.

I think a part of the problem is this nagging desire to show that these old timers have “still got it” by making them look good. But that’s not funny! Watching people who think they’ve still got it making a complete fool of themselves is much funnier. Let’s face it, the idea is great, but it’s a farce, and a farcical movie might have worked better than a semi-serious one with a few obvious jokes thrown in. It’s pretty much a remake of Rocky Balboa (the most recent entry in the Rocky franchise), except instead of one old geezer you have two.

Speaking of old geezers, Stallone is looking great for a 67-year-old, but the problem is that he still can’t string together two coherent words together. And his character, Henry “Razor” Sharp, has zero personality. Kind of like Rocky, actually, except without the charisma. On the other hand, De Niro has a much jucier role as the playboy Bill “The Kid” McDonnen, and it seems like he’s enjoying it. He in no way resembles Jake Lamotta from Raging Bull, which is a shame because there’s tremendous spoof potential there.

The saving grace for the film is Alan Arkin, who plays Stallone’s old trainer. Arkin provides the best lines in the film, mostly one-liners, ensuring that Grudge Match is at least sporadically amusing rather than not funny at all (like the promoter played by Kevin Hart, who I actually like).

As for the fight itself, I guess it’s hard to expect too much from two 70-year-olds, no matter how fit they (or drugged up, in the case of one of them) may be. What surprised me was that the filmmakers decided to go down the completely serious route to try and make it a “proper” boxing match complete with unconvincing manufactured drama. The choreography of the fight was also just OK, much closer to the wild brawling style of Rocky than any of the more “realistic” boxing flicks of the last few years. One thing I will give the film credit for is having a proper resolution in the end and declaring a winner, rather than a cop-out ending like a draw or double KO.

With two big stars who have become Hollywood boxing royalty and an intriguing premise brimming with potential, Grudge Match could have been a ripper of a comedy if they really went for it. But in the end they chose to play it safe and the result is a decent albeit uninspiring effort that’s only marginally amusing and completely forgettable.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Real Steel (2011)

I reckon if I saw Real Steel when I was seven years old I’d think it’s the best movie of all time.  Seriously.  A kid protagonist, Wolverine as his dad, Evangeline Lilly as the girl and boxing robots.  Boxing robots!  What more could a kid ask for?

As an adult, I still thought Real Steel was pretty decent; better than expected.  It’s essentially a father/child relationship/redemption movie with a Rocky slant featuring giant robots that beat the crap out of each other.  Set in the not too distant future, human boxing has been abandoned (after the recent Mayweather vs Ortiz and Hopkins vs Dawson debacles, who could blame them?) in favour of giant boxing robots controlled by humans (either by remote control or voice).

Hugh Jackman (or as I like to call him, Jack Human) is a former journeyman boxer turned robot owner who for certain reasons has to look after his long abandoned son, Max (Dakota Goyo).  The duo, along with the daughter of Jackman’s former trainer (Lilly), start ‘training’ an old bot that has no business being in the ring with other newer bigger bots, but as you guessed, they start kicking butt.

Real Steel is a feel-good true underdog story and a tale of redemption that appeals the way the original Rocky did 35 years ago, and the performances of the leads, especially that Goyo kid, are excellent.  Is it just me or are all child actors named Dakota acting prodigies?

Surprisingly, the film’s strength lies in the drama and the relationship between father and son.  I wouldn’t have expected it but director Shawn Levy (Date Night) managed to make me care about the characters and understand their motivations.

The robot action, to be honest, was a little underwhelming in my opinion.  It’s just two robots punching the crap out of each other like…robots.  There’s no way humans would have given up real boxing for that boring mechanical stuff.

Young boys and boys young at heart will have a ball with this one.  As for everyone else, if you can stomach all the obvious emotional manipulation and get into the spirit of the overcoming-the- odds, albeit somewhat predictable story, then Real Steel can be a real enjoyable ride.

3.5 stars out of 5!