The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 June


Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear, 1997

On this day in 1997, during a boxing match for the WBA Heavyweight Championship title, one of the fighters, “Iron” Mike Tyson, bit off a chunk of the ear of his opponent, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield. The fight was a rematch, after Holyfield had knocked out Tyson in the 11th round seven months earlier, to take the title. Billed as “The Sound and the Fury”, the fight took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and right from the start Tyson was complaining to referee Mills Lane about Holyfield headbutting him, which he’d also complained about at their original match. Holyfield took the first two rounds, though head-butted Tyson halfway through the second (unintentionally, he said; the referee agreed). Tyson came out of his corner for the third round without a mouthguard and was ordered by Lane to put it in. He did so, but when Holyfield got him in a clinch, Tyson responded by biting off a chunk of his right ear and spitting it onto the ground. In spite of Holyfield’s protestations, the fight was resumed, whereupon Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear. At the end of the round, Mills Lane spotted the bite mark to Holyfield’s left ear and disqualified Tyson.




The Fighter (2010, dir: David O Russell)

Who is the fighter in The Fighter? The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a dumb-as-toast boxer being coached towards a big fight by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) who himself had a go in the ring before blowing out back in the 1980s. But watch “Irish” Micky – entirely passive, withdrawn, deferring to anybody who’s asking, in thrall to his mother and sisters, but especially to Dicky, a twitching ball of ADHD, rictus-mouthed, not a bad man but certainly someone you wouldn’t want to be around for too long. Bale won the Oscar for his performance, for supporting actor, which shows that the Academy fell for director David O Russell’s (and his screenwriters’) feint too. Because the fighter, obviously, is Dicky and the lead in this film is Bale, not Wahlberg. Everyone in the cast knows it. Including Wahlberg who not once makes a bid for glory or the spotlight in his beautifully controlled performance (in a fair world he would have won the supporting Oscar). In fact, in The Fighter, every single person is fighting, except for Micky, the actual pugilist, who is cossetted and primped, stroked like a Kobe bull, walked like the lump of meat he is up to the ring, where he finally does his bit of jabbing, is then led away, has his gloves delaced and returns to his life of dumb torpor.
Even Charlene (Amy Adams), the bright spark who wanders into Micky’s life and drives an emotional wedge into the family – she’s upset their careful schedules – has to fight for her man. And, in fighting for him, she wins the grudging respect of this dim-bulb family of hard knocks operating at the shitty end of the boxing game. This family is David O Russell’s great achievement – the Greek chorus of sisters who spend the early rounds of their bout with Charlene shouting “skank” at her. Melissa Leo as the mother, all leopard skin tops, bottle blonde hair, cigarettes and a mouth that could release seized wheelnuts. She’s quite brilliant (her Oscar entirely deserved).
How many boxing films have there been? People have been turning them out since the 1890s – two actors, lots of action, a winner and a loser, an easily controlled environment, you can see the attraction. And cheap. But David O Russell has come up with a new spin on the old formula, by pointing out that a man is only as good as his team. If the team fights for him, he stands a chance. If it doesn’t, he’s yesterday’s papers. Without that novel approach this would be just another boxing film – the Rocky training sequences, the “couldabeenacontenda” speeches, the dope on the rope finish. With it, it’s something entirely different. This is the film that atoned for I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s wacky flop of six years earlier. It marked his comeback – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle followed – and proved he was something of a fighter himself.



Why Watch?


  • Full of great performances: Bale, Wahlberg, Leo, Adams
  • A boxing movie with a difference
  • The punchy, funny screenplay
  • The distinctive cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar)


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Fighter – Watch it now at Amazon






Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium, Mexico 1968


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 April


Martin Luther King assassinated, 1968

On this day in 1968, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He’d gone there to intervene in a strike of black sanitary public works employees, who were employed on zero-hours contracts, while their white counterparts were paid by the day, irrespective of hours worked. There had been a bomb threat against King’s plane en route and he was clearly expecting trouble. On 3 April, at Mason Temple, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech – “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…” – which clearly suggests that he knew he was on a hit list. The next day, after talking to the musician Ben Branch, and asking him to play the hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord at a rally that evening, King was felled by a rifle shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he regularly stayed. Most likely he died instantly but an hour later, at 7.05pm, he was pronounced dead. He was 39. The hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord was sung at his funeral.




Salute (2008, dir: Matt Norman)

At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the medal ceremony for the 200 metres race turned into a political statement whose impact can still be felt down the years. As the Star Spangled Banner was struck up the gold medal winner Tommie Smith and his fellow American John Carlos (bronze) raised their fists in the Black Power salute. Silver medallist Peter Norman, a white Australian, wore a badge proclaiming himself part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a badge that both Carlos and Smith were also wearing. This documentary about that day, the salute, the ensuing media hysteria, and what happened to the athletes involved, was made by Matt Norman, Peter Norman’s nephew, and so focuses more on Peter than might initially seem justifiable. Except that Peter Norman is a self-effacing, humble and funny man, a fine example of noble humanity and a great guide to the events as they unfolded. As are both Carlos and Smith, both of whom Matt Norman interviews at length. Unlike the American style of documentary, which usually function as a celebration of the subject at hand, Salute takes time to analyse both sides. So we hear the arguments that the salute was important, both for the black people back home, but also for the oppressed in the shanty towns around Mexico City, at least 200 of whom had recently been killed by Mexican militia, the rest of whose lives had been made immeasurably worse by the arrival of the Olympic circus (Smith and Carlos claim their clenched fists were a “human rights salute” not just a black power salute). On the other hand there is the argument, made forcibly, that it was a mere gesture, changed nothing, and only served to ruin the careers of all involved. That last of which is true, for sure – none of the participants went to another Olympics, in spite of the fact that the race was so fast that Norman’s second place would have won him gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Thanks to the clear recall of Peter Norman and the assiduous research of his nephew, the film has a wider function – anecdotes such as the one from Peter about the Australian athletes being so unused to altitude that they couldn’t walk up the stairs of their Mexico hotel, these really give a flavour of the time. Adding more depth are revelations about Avery Brundage, the Olympic chief back then, whose racist past could be traced all the way back to Hitler’s Olympics in 1936. It’s a fascinating film, which would work better with a trim here and there, though unusual because it’s about one form of idealism butting up against another.

Why Watch?


  • A perfect example of the “should sport and politics mix?” debate
  • A useful introduction to Olympic history
  • All the main players are interviewed
  • Impressive use of archive footage


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Salute – at Amazon





Rudo y Cursi

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in Rudo y Cursi


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 March


The Wanderers FC win first FA Cup, 1872

Today in 1872, the London football club Wanderers won the first football association cup, the oldest football competition in the world. It was the first of three wins of the cup for the club. The FA Cup is a knockout cup open to all football clubs who are established enough, and with facilities enough, to take part. In 1871-72, being the first season of the cup, there was a piecemeal and eccentric series of regulations – Wanderers managed to get to the final having won only one of their four games because in those days a game ending in a draw resulted in both teams going on to the next round. The final was played at the Kennington Oval, Wanderers’ home ground (and that of Surrey County Cricket team, which it still is) where Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0. The following year, given a bye all the way to the final as a result of winning the previous year, Wanderers beat Oxford University 2-0. The club’s third and final FA Cup win came at the end of the 1877-78 season when they again beat Royal Engineers. Success was short-lived: the following season Wanderers were knocked out in the first round of the FA Cup; by the 1880-81 season Wanderers were unable to raise a team and so couldn’t compete. By the following year Wanderers had de facto ceased to exist, playing only one ceremonial game each year against Harrow School at Christmas. In 2009 Wanderers were reformed as a charity-raising team and went on to stage a rematch of the 1872 FA Cup Final with Royal Engineers at the Oval in 2012. They lost 7-1.




Rudo y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna came to international prominence in the 2001 drama Y Tu Mama También and reteam for this footballing drama that also takes smalltown boys on a rites-of-passage journey. The journey in this case is also sex-soaked, but then it’s also dripping in cocaine, drink, beautiful women and all the other trappings of the high life. This being the story of two naturally gifted poor half-brothers on a banana plantation who are spotted by a talent scout who happens to be in the area and then whisked off to Mexico City, where one becomes a striker for one of the city’s teams, the other a goalkeeper for another. One (played by Bernal) winds up with the hottest woman in the country (played by Jessica Mas); the other (Luna) with the biggest cocaine habit. It ends badly for both. As a film Rudo y Cursi is a little schematic in its rise-and-fall dynamic, but as a shorthand for what hits a Beckham, a Messi or a Suarez it tells what must be a true story – of guys out of their depth, suddenly surrounded by everything that money can buy, squads of hangers-on, with only their families to turn to for escape and counsel, who are also clueless and are also entirely swept along in the whirlwind. Rudo and Cursi are ciphers, in other words, and the acting talents of Bernal and Luna are powerless in the face of a script that isn’t interested in fleshing them out. More interesting is the scout Baton – straw hat, grubby shirt, girl on each arm – the ultimate stereotype, though played by Guillermo Francella with loads of guile, charm and intelligence, the bridge between the rural poor and the blinging rich. In a world of widening chasms between rich and poor, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the pay-no-tax entitlement of the super-rich and their “go hang” attitude towards the rest. If it is, it is never overt. Another interesting absence, this time definitely deliberate, is the decision to show no football whatsoever. Even the crucial “it all hangs on this goal” sequence required in all sports movies is conveyed by a series of close-ups of spectators in the stadium, cuts to various locales in the country (bars, mostly). There’s nothing here to frighten the sport-o-phobe.



Why Watch?


  • See what Alfonso Cuarón’s younger director brother can do
  • Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna together again
  • A sports movie without (much) sport
  • Adam Kimmel’s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rudo y Cursi – at Amazon





The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



2 December



Big Daddy dies, 1997

On this day in 1997, the wrestler born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax, England, in 1930, died. Crabtree came from a wrestling family – his father, also named Shirley Crabtree, was a wrestler, as were his nephews Steve and Scott Crabtree (though they both wrestled under the name Valentine). Shirley Crabtree followed his father into the ring in 1952 (the same year that Vince McMahon was creating the WWF brand in the USA). With his 64 inch chest and blond hair, Crabtree became a prominent blue-eye (ie hero type) and won the European Heavyweight Championships twice before retiring in 1966. He returned in 1972 as a heel (ie bad guy) with the character of the Battling Guardsman before returning again in 1974 as Big Daddy, named after the Burl Ives character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Initially Big Daddy was a heel, an image that was reinforced when he formed a tag team with Martin Ruane, the 6ft 11in (2.11m) 685lb (311kg) wrestler known as Giant Haystacks, who would later become his arch rival. By 1977 Crabtree had returned yet again, again as Big Daddy, but this time as a blue-eye who wore a sequinned cape and arrived ringside draped in the national flag to the sound of We Shall Not Be Moved over the sound system. Big Daddy was, as his name suggests, big. This led to an ungainliness in his movements, though Crabtree turned this to his advantage by developing signature movements such as the Big Splash, which involved him dropping his bulky body belly first onto a prostrate opponent – at which point he would encourage the crowd to shout “Easy. Easy”. Big Daddy’s career almost came to an end when he Big Splash-ed Mal “King Kong” Kirk during a bout, and Kirk died (the coroner absolved Crabtree of blame, pointing to Kirk’s serious heart condition). Crabtree took the death personally, but continued wrestling into his 60s, though he became increasingly a static presence, against which lighter, prettier wrestlers would hurl themselves to little effect.




The Wrestler (2008, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

A reminder that Mickey Rourke is an actor who operates outside the pantomime arena, when he wants to, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is all about age, breakdown, decay and the everyday heroics necessary to just keep going. The fact that it stars Rourke, who famously abandoned acting to become a boxer, then returned to movies years later a collagen-lipped beat-up reminder of his former self, makes this film, at some level, the story of Rourke himself. And it’s a heartbreaker, the journey with the small-fry wrestler at the wrong end of his career, a tough guy with a heart of gold, a good word for everybody, a man who’s gone a bit deaf, works on the meat counter (nice touch) at a supermarket where he’s bossed about by a ballbusting dick, whose daughter hates him, whose lap-dancer girlfriend isn’t even really his girlfriend. It’s the insights into the wrestling game that make this film so powerful – the tanning salon, the hair extensions, the growth hormone and the painkillers, the eye-opening and eye-watering use of a staple gun. And Aronofsky and documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot it all arthouse – dark, handheld, grainy, many key scenes are so underlit you have to squint through the mood to work out what’s going on. As for plot – there isn’t much of one, we’re just following Randy “The Ram” Robinson from one indignity to the next, while he fumbles about trying to work out what to do with what’s left of his life now his career is over, or as good as over. Is it a metaphor for the baby boomers, more generally? It can be if you want it to be, though Aronofsky has learnt from some of the excess of earlier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) and plays it straight. He’s blessed to have Rourke, and to have Evan Rachel Wood as the estranged daughter, Marisa Tomei as the girlfriend who isn’t a girlfriend. And to have all those New Jersey locations, looking every bit as busted, chipped and beaten up as The Ram himself. As for Rourke, wait till you hear his “I’m an old broken down piece of meat speech”.



Why Watch?


  • Should have been Rourke’s Oscar winner
  • Aronofsky’s best film – yes, better than Black Swan
  • Real insight into to how the theatrical world of wrestling works
  • Bruce Springsteen’s tender title song


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Wrestler – at Amazon





Without Limits

Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 November



Adolf Dassler born, 1900

On this day in 1900, Adolf Dassler, known to his friends as Adi, was born, in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, Germany. A cobbler by training he started making his own sports shoes after returning from the First World War. He got his big break at the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928, where his running shoes were popular with athletes. At the 1936 Olympics Dassler offered Jesse Owens a pair of his running shoes, the first time an African American had had a sponsor. Dassler joined the Nazi party, along with his brother Rudolf, but later left the party and in fact shopped his brother to the occupying authorities as a member of the SS when the war ended. Shortly thereafter the Dassler brothers dissolved their company – Gebrüder Dassler Shuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoes) – and went their separate ways, Adi to found Adidas (as in Adi Dassler) and Rudi to found Ruda, which later became Puma. Both companies are still headquartered in Herzogenaurach.



Without Limits (1998, dir: Robert Towne)

A fascinating and overlooked film co-written and directed by Robert Towne, the legendary writer of Chinatown, and starring Billy Crudup as charismatic runner Steve Prefontaine, whose antics off the track, long hair and Beatle moustache made him something of a countercultural pin-up in the early 1970s. Crudup was on the brink of great things when he made this – what happened there? – so was perfectly poised to play a natural talent on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s a hagiography, for sure, but it’s a nicely done one, and has fascinating info-gobbets about the making of the Nike running shoe, as developed by Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine’s trainer (and founder of Nike along with track star Phil Knight). Bowerman is played with subtlety and great grace by Donald Sutherland, and the scenes between the runner and the trainer – each wanting the same thing but with different ideas about getting there – sees both actors digging deep (as they always seem to say about runners). Tom Cruise is the film’s producer and it’s tempting to watch the whole film as a surrogate Cruise movie – topgunnin’ runner who does things his way, overcomes obstacles, refuses to play by the rules, throws the odd tantrum – a temptation that must be resisted. It’s the race scenes, ultimately, that make this film a success, Towne cleverly using original commentary to add verisimilitude as “Pre” pounds around the track, rarely pacing himself, going simply as fast as he could all the time, and in the process rewriting America running’s record books and changing the way amateur athletes were rewarded. He didn’t do the Nike brand any harm either.



Why Watch?


  • Billy Crudup warming up for the career that never was
  • Though far too old, Tom Cruise did consider himself for the title role
  • Conrad Hall’s cinematography
  • A sports movie which, unusually, isn’t about a team game


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Without Limits – at Amazon





Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 September



Death of Miles Davis, 1991

On this day in 1991, Miles Davis died. By his own estimation the Juilliard educated trumpeter, band leader and composer changed music “five or six times”. Whether that is true or not, he was there when bebop was being invented, and the same went for hard bop, orchestral jazz, modal jazz, jazz-rock and techno-funk, the last of which he tossed off almost as an afterthought, having come out of retirement after spending the late 1970s indulging his two addictions – drugs and sex. His 1959 album Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz record of all time, he was one of the snappiest dressers in the history of recorded music (in his early years), and one of the weirdest (in his later years), he was a mean boxer, a skilled basketball player and was the subject of some of the coolest photographs ever to grace an album cover. The fact that he was a grade A scumbag needs mentioning too, though the girlfriends he abused weren’t forced to stay with him (or they thought the tough stuff was a price worth paying), and the people he insulted might well have considered it something of an honour to have been bad-mouthed by one of the greats. When saxophone legend John Coltrane once complained that he didn’t know how to end a lot of long (I did not say rambling) solos, Davis said “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” The man also had a keen eye for talent – Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter – and Miles: The Autobiography is the definitive warts and all autobiography, what one fan on the Guardian website called “the confessions of a complete and utter turd.” And genius.



Jack Johnson (1970, dir: Jim Jacobs)

An edited down version of one of Miles Davis’s greatest records, the Jack Johnson Sessions, provides the soundtrack to one of the great boxing documentaries, about the first African-American to become world heavyweight champion. Deploying a playful style – a prototype Mohammad Ali – Johnson would toy with his opponents, mindful that the punters were keen to get their money’s worth, parrying their blows, boxing scientifically, defensively, before almost invariably winning the match with a few quick, strong punches to the head. It was because of Johnson’s dominance of boxing in the early 20th century that the term “great white hope” was coined, and it was applied to any white boxer who could be lined up to take on the “Galveston Giant”. This led to “the fight of the century” on 4 July 1910, against James J Jeffries (who had said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro”), the result of which led to race riots. Fast-forward to 1970, the era of Black Power, and this documentary directed by boxing promoter Jim Jacobs, which tries to unpick the man from the myth. A mix of newsreel footage, stills, Johnson’s words spoken by an actor (Brock Peters), presents more than just the bones of the boxer’s life – the fights, the fast cars, the love of jazz, the marriages to three white women, his arrest and trial for offences against “morals”, his trips to Spain and Russia, a man whose eventual defeat in the ring in 1915 seemed to do little to break his spirit. It is an “I’m black and I’m proud” sketch, of its time, patchy, necessarily, but in many ways a more honest portrait than the film The Great White Hope, which also appeared in the same year.



Why Watch?


  • One of the most distinctive film soundtracks ever
  • One of the great heavyweight boxers of all time
  • Director Jim Jacobs went on to co-manage Mike Tyson
  • Watch Johnson fight Jess Willard – it’s clear he threw the fight, as he always said he did


© Steve Morrissey 2013



This film is not available at Amazon (and the DVD sleeve shot from the IMDB source is of Jack Johnson the musician, which is embarrassing. Apologies)


The great Miles Davis soundtrack album is available – at Amazon

And the epic original sessions are too – at Amazon





Love and Basketball

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps


The sports movie meets the romance in a boy-meets-girl drama featuring two affluent black kids. Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan play the basketball-playing next-door neighbours as grown-ups, the film having followed them from before puberty, through it and out into the world of professional sport and beyond.

On the romance side it’s a “will-they-won’t-they” plot, in the sports arena it’s unusually focused on the daily decision-making and strategising of operating as a sports professional, where a career could be measured in months. On both sides it packs in most of the positive role models a body could need, carefully avoiding stereotyping (except that he’s hung), because that’s a bad thing. This film works hard to seduce its audience – music, shouting, foreplay, lovely interior design and countless baskets, not to mention the performances, by the stars and support (special mention to Alfre Woodard as Lathan’s mother). But though it’s refreshing to see the girl as the pursuer, and a totally ripped Epps as the eye candy, the film struggles to generate drama, particularly as its focus moves from her to him in the second half.

© Steve Morrissey 2001


Love and Basketball – at Amazon

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Coach Carter

Samuel L Jackson in Coach Carter



“Inspirational coach” movies come in many shapes and sizes. This one comes in the shape of Samuel L. Jackson, the tough talking, clean-living paragon of virtue who comes into a troubled school and turns around the basketball team in the teeth of indifference from pupils, teachers and … sorry, am I boring you? There’s a little more to Coach Carter than the usual sports movie fare. To whit: it is based on the true story of the coach who insisted his players properly knuckle down. He made them sign contracts. Controversially, he also insisted they got good grades in their other classes otherwise they were off the team. And outrageously, he closed the team’s gym when a couple of his players broke the terms of their contract – to the ire of the players and the local community who couldn’t understand what the fuss about book learning was anyway. Those nuggety taste-explosions of plot aside, there’s not much to see here. Apart from Jackson himself, who produces enough electricity to keep this bag of clichés going… almost.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Coach Carter – at Amazon




Sima Mobarak-Shahi in Offside




Iranian Jafar Panahi’s comedy is about a group of girls who are arrested for dressing up as boys and trying to get in to see the 2006 World Cup Iran/Bahrain qualifier, women not being allowed to watch football in Iran. Accessing another country’s culture through football is a neat way of curving a ball past those who “don’t do arthouse”. The anti-subtitle crowd might also be interested to learn that the film was shot on the hoof, guerrilla style at the actual game in Tehran, using non-professional actors. Painting a picture of a country that seems at first almost barbaric in its medieval world view, Panahi isn’t so western focused that he can’t show us the odd upside to the strict Islamic way of life. Women, though obviously circumscribed in what they can do, do seem to have some advantages – they are treated with courtesy and are not the focus of sexual barracking and undressing looks (imagine a football game in the west). Panahi also shows us the similarities between “them” and “us” – in other words it’s nice to see people we know little about wearing Ronaldo shirts. Football goes where politics and religion fear to tread. Ultimately, though, let’s not be too cute – this is a critique of a conservative society (“Men and women are not the same” as one dim soldier tells one of the plucky girls he is now guarding, until someone can work out what’s to be done with them), a trenchant critique of the ayatollahs, a snapshot of a country that’s plainly gaga over the beautiful game and an atmospheric mood piece. Not bad for one small film. Not surprisingly, it’s banned in Iran.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Offside – at Amazon