The 10 Best Fight Films of All Time

by Ben Travers

13 September 2011


7 - 4

#7 - The Hurricane

Denzel Washington’s powerful performance was at least partially overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of race. Those prejudices and complications aside, The Hurricane is a tremendous boxing film. It is not just about a boxer and his unjust imprisonment – it’s about how boxing and the mentality he gained from it helped him survive his confinement (and vice versa).

Washington more than plays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – he inhabits him. He becomes him. The performance is an extremely difficult one because it calls on the lead to exhibit an internal mentality of stoic pride, an outward physicality of an improbably tough fighter, and the constant calmness of a cool, calculated, and intelligent individual. Washington moves smoothly from one aspect to the other and makes each uniquely fascinating.

Perhaps his and the film’s strongest scene is when Carter is initially locked in solitary confinement. His mental state cracking, the champ is forced to debate openly which part of him can survive inside. His anger fights with his humanity, one calling the other names and the second begging for survival. It’s a captivating scene, shot in an almost identical style to the one in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Gollum debates with his reflection in a lake. Here, though, the camera hovers on Washington, letting the powerful performer do the work on his own – no costar necessary, reflection or otherwise.

The Hurricane isn’t about the final fight in the ring, either, but its fighters’ mentality serves the whole film, and the early fights do matter. They say more about the man than much of the film’s fight-less second half. At the very least, watch it for Washington. He didn’t get the Oscar he wanted, but he can still get your eyes.

#6 - Million Dollar Baby

Though it’s certainly lost some of its luster since its impressive Oscar run in 2004, Clint Eastwood’s last acting role in a good movie (yeah, Gran Torino is terrible and you know it) will never be forgotten, and deservedly so.

At its onset, the film feels like your standard boxing tale. An underdog fighter hires a reluctant manager to get a title shot. The twist was supposed to be that this time, the fighter was a woman. That is, until the real twist arrived in the film’s shocking final act. The movie changed. The message changed. The formula was forever altered.

And damn if there wasn’t some good fighting. From Eastwood fixing his first fighter’s nose to the final, ill-fated battle between Maggie Fitzgerald and Billie “The Blue Bear”, these sequences stand toe to toe with the other great fight scenes in film history. While it will never be a title contender, Million Dollar Baby has earned the respect of its peers.

#5 - Cinderella Man

Ron Howard’s Depression era boxing drama was actually ahead of its time. The story of James Braddock would have played much better today (in my opinion), during a time of economic turmoil when people go to the movies for escapism. You see, Cinderella Man is about a fighter forced into retirement due to injury during one of the worst times in history to be unemployed. He gets a second shot at the ring and makes the most of it, becoming a hero to the working class and an icon for America.

I know audiences aren’t too keen on watching movies with even the slightest relation to the real world right now, but Howard’s emotionally affecting tale has two factors going for it. The first is distance. The time period clearly sets it apart from modern times for those who don’t want to make the connection. The second aspect favoring its release is a true hero story, something sorely lacking in theaters now. Sure, superheroes are all over the place, but their appeal is limited to the fantasy world. Braddock really did what he did. He gave hope to our grandfathers. Sell that, and you’ll sell a lot.

I know what’s scaring you off, though, and I’ll be the first to admit my distaste for Renee Zellweger. Yet she holds her own here, and it’s no small feat next to Crowe, who in 2005, was at the top of his game. This was only his second movie since coming off back-to-back-to-back Oscar nominations from 2000-2002, and his first was the undervalued Master and Commander. No matter when you watch it, though, Cinderella Man is an incredible story with equally talented actors to support it.

#4 - When We Were Kings

The only well-known boxing documentary is probably the only one casual fight fans need to see. Before the fictionalized version of Ali was released in 2001, fight fans got to see the man himself in Leon Gast’s outstanding Academy Award winning documentary on the 1974 bout between Ali and the heavyweight champion of the world George Foreman, known best as “The Rumble in the Jungle”.

Gast’s footage is outstanding. He has multiple interviews with Ali, an unbelievable amount of behind the scenes recordings, and a natural eye for his subjects. The many stories going on at the time (race, war, politics) could have burdened the film if its leader wasn’t so focused on chronicling everything that lead up to one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport. Instead, each gets its due time, but never outside of context.

Best of all, Gast sets aside the final thirty minutes for exclusive fight coverage. Every punch thrown is seen and each crucial blow, movement, and strategy is dissected by journalists who were there. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton’s accounts are relied upon in particular, and each is as concisely depictive in their interviews as they are in their written words. Gast also gives us some beautiful shots of the fight’s most ferocious punches in slow motion, sometimes two or three times. There was never an instant where I had to rewind because I wanted to see something again – Gast gives us all the best shots from the best angle possible.

The whole picture clocks in at a mere 89 minutes, so for those of you putting it off – stop. Flip on Netflix instant and enjoy yourself. You’ll be on your feet by the end anyway.

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