"I could have been a contender," says Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, and the raw emotion he puts into this oft-quoted line sums up the allure of boxing movies. With Rocky as their archetype, these films are about an individual triumphing against massive odds and trading that one-way ticket to Palookaville for a bloody road to redemption.
Price of Glory and Southpaw, the latest examples of the genre, add two important components to the formula. Both follow disenfranchised men who gain respect through boxing, and also explore the often thorny relationships between fathers – biological and surrogate – and sons.
The differences between the two films are played out in the ring. Price is a fictional tale set in America’s professional boxing world, packed with hard-hitting fights choreographed for maximum effect. The documentary Southpaw takes place in the amateur leagues of Ireland and Great Britain, where boxers wear protective headgear and wins are determined by the judges’ scores, not knockouts.
Arturo Ortega (Jimmy Smits) is in many ways a typical stage father. With his own boxing career cut short during a brutal, lopsided battle that left his body and spirit pummeled, he throws his relentless energy into turning his three sons into champions. Domineering, overprotective and demanding, Arturo molds them into the Fighting Ortegas, a triumvirate of power, speed and agility.
When his sons gain the attention of big-time boxing promoter Nick Everson (Ron Perlman), Arturo becomes increasingly possessive, determined to maintain sole control over their careers. Screenwriter Phil Berger (who covered boxing for the New York Times) sets up a classic morality tale which first-time director Carlos Avila exploits for all it’s worth.
What gives Price its punch are the film’s family dynamics and cultural politics. The Mexican-American border fence is literally in the Ortegas’ Arizona backyard, and being Latino in an Anglo society is an ever-present undercurrent in these characters’ lives.
Living on the margins of the dominant culture is an experience Southpaw boxer Francis Barrett knows all too well. As one of the "travelers" (gypsylike clans which once traversed the countryside in caravans), Barrett grew up poor in a subculture so scorned that when he was chosen to carry the Irish flag at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it became a national scandal.
Director Liam McGrath has found a compelling subject in Barrett, and follows him for two years, beginning with his meteoric rise from junior amateur champion to Olympic team member at 19. A major narrative thread is Barrett’s relationship with his first trainer, Chick Gillen, who founded a Galway boxing club where no one who wanted to learn would be turned away. This included travelers like Francis, who trained in a makeshift trailer at the Hillside encampment, which has no electricity and limited running water.
As Francis outgrew his surroundings, moving to London with his new wife and competing in the British leagues, he never broke his connection to Chick, a fact that various pundits in Southpaw cite for his mixed success. One states that he needs to be a boxer first, traveler second, but the film makes clear that the two identities are irrevocably intertwined. (The film could have used more background information on travelers for non-Irish audiences to fully grasp Francis’ situation.)
This real-life tale contains as many frustrating setbacks as it does triumphs, and has fewer clear-cut victories. Francis Barrett’s life is portrayed very much as a work in progress, which make his battles all the more compelling.
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