Guest Writer: Christopher Lambert of Film Colossus
Boxing and cinema have a rich, rich history. Raging Bull helped to establish the star-power of Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. It was the Muhammed Ali biopic that killed Will Smith’s image as a goof ball comedy guy and resurrected him as a serious actor. Rocky had 10 Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Picture. Of the 29 sports movies ever to be nominated for an Oscar, 11 were boxing movies.
Is it any wonder I get pretty hyped when a new boxing movie is coming out? There’s a pretty good chance it may be one of the best movies of the year, and that’s often because of how boxing films render relationships. Hands of Stone is the newest entry into sweet science cinema, and demonstrates this emphasis on relationship.
Hands of Stone, like Raging Bull, like The Fighter, like Million Dollar Baby, like Creed, like Snatch, like Ali, like The Champ, has the dynamic between the boxer and the trainer, the boxer and the opponent, the boxer and friends/family/community. Of course, there’s the battle with the self which affects performance in the ring. And performance in the ring affects the relationship with the trainer, the opponent, friends/family/community.
What Hands of Stone really made me appreciate is that the differentiating factor in almost every boxing film is the scope of the fighter’s relationship to his or her community.
Let’s run through that scope, shall we?
Million Dollar Baby is basically the null point. Maggie has no connection to a community. And that’s purposefully so to better form the bond between her and her trainer, Frankie. The film is about their relationship. All the emotion pivots on the strength of their bond. Any inclusion of community would only dilute that bond, lessening the intensity of the main story.
The next step up is The Fighter. Mickey’s boxing prospects ebb and flow with the family dynamic. Not just his trainer, not just his girlfriend. But his brother, his mother, everyone on that immediate level of importance. What’s going on in Boston doesn’t matter to him. The national zeitgeist is none of his concern. But how his ma’s feeling? That’s make or break. Southpaw is in the same boat. Billy Hope only ever cared about his wife and daughter—they were blessings, everyone and everything else was a curse.
ZOOMING MORE OUT
Rocky and Creed are the level higher. Both films are hugely concerned with the connection the fighter has with the city of Philadelphia. The stronger the attachment the stronger the boxer. The inspiration the city provides adds the little something extra that’s necessary to be a winner. We see this all the time in real life baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and the like. When the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA Championship, the players cried. It wasn’t just because they were excited for themselves. It’s because they knew what the championship meant to Cleveland and Ohio. Rocky was the same way. There’s a reason that the city of Philadelphia built a real statue in honor of a fictional character. The pride Rocky had for the city, the attachment he had, transcended the screen and became a legitimate and reciprocated thing in the world.
WE WAY OUT THERE
The broadest scope we have is for movies like The Boxer and Rocky 4. Here, there’s a major importance placed on the hero representing the country. In the case of The Boxer, Danny Flynn is not just a pugilist but a member of the Provisional Irish Republic Army. So he’s constantly being swept up into political situations that could make or break Northern Ireland. His fights aren’t just for his own pride or the well-being of his family or a city. An entire country pins their hopes on Danny.
The same thing happens in Rocky 4. It’s Rocky, the American, versus Drago, the Russian. The fight ends and Rocky makes an impassioned plea to the Russians to no longer be enemies. This isn’t subtle stuff.
Hands of Stone is in the same category as Boxer and Rocky 4, but has, in my mind, better development and scope than either. As far as I’m aware, no other boxing movie has ever taken the relationship between country and fighter this far.
Panama’s trials and tribulations as a nation sculpt and develop Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez). The American occupation of the country builds in the child the rage and boldness that are the reasons for adult Durán’s successes and misfortunes. Hands of Stone cares enough about Roberto’s relationship with Panama to develop Panama as a character, to provide it with history, tension, and development. That really earned my respect, especially when compared to Rocky 4‘s generic (but amazing) portrayal of “America vs Russia” or the melodrama that was Southpaw.
Southpaw was a fine movie, but it had very, very, very little in the way of character development. It established baseline tropes like “Billy loves his wife,” and “Billy loves his daughter,” hoping that we connect to the IDEA of someone loving their wife and daughter. We can’t really care about the wife, because she doesn’t have enough screen time to be anything more than a concept. Same with the daughter. She’s there. Then she’s not. Her presence is ethereal. Come and go. She’s a carrot for Billy to pursue, nothing more.
Hands of Stone gives Panama a landscape, a palette, a people, emotions. By bringing the country to life, we’re better able to buy into Roberto’s passion for his homeland, which means we care more about Panama and its people. This kind of vicarious identification strengthens our relationship with Roberto. We feel more poignantly his ups and downs. His victories and defeats—both in and out of the ring. This often creates a wellspring of emotion in the viewer, providing a cinematic experience full of depth and breadth.
These intense relationship dynamics then express themselves during the in-ring battles, creating a feedback-loop between what is emotional and what is physical. It reminds us that our relationships affect our ability to succeed, and our ability to succeed affects our relationships. Who can’t relate to that?
If none of that appeals to you, at the very least, plenty of people got punched in the face. So…