“But you don’t understand it took Mark Wahlberg years to make this movie! It was a labor of love! He remained in boxing shape since 2005, woke up at 4 in the morning to keep training, sparred for thousands of hours, never gave up even after watching the project fall through multiple times. IT WAS A LABOR OF LOVE!!!!!!!!!”
That’s been this month’s media spin for “The Fighter,” an impeccably acted drama about two brothers — a boxer and his addict trainer — that will be remembered as the best sports movie of 2010 by default. The film was marketed so brilliantly that nobody ever asked, “Wait a second, why did such a successful actor have so much trouble getting a relatively inexpensive movie made?”
The easy answer: Since “Rocky” captured the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976, Hollywood has churned out an average of one boxing movie per year. That’s astonishing, especially when the average American sports fan can name only four active boxers right now: Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and the Klitschko brothers, whom nobody can identify individually beyond, “I think one of them dates Hayden Panettiere.” The complete roll call since 1976: “Rocky”; “The Greatest”; “Rocky II”; “The Champ”; “The Main Event”; “Penitentiary”; “Raging Bull”; “Body and Soul”; “Penitentiary II”; “Rocky III”; “Tough Enough”; “Rocky IV”; “Teen Wolf II”; “Penitentiary III”; “Rocky V”; “Play It to the Bone”; “Gladiator”; “Diggstown”; “When We Were Kings”; “The Great White Hype”; “The Hurricane”; “The Boxer”; “Rocky Marciano”; “Girlfight”; “Ali”; “Undisputed”; “Million Dollar Baby”; “Against the Ropes”; “Cinderella Man”; “Undisputed II”; “Rocky Balboa”; “Resurrecting the Champ”; “The Hammer”; “Fighting”; “The Fighter.”
Best part of that list: Hollywood giving up and calling its last two efforts “Fighting” and “The Fighter.” Get ready for “Fight,” “Punch” and “Ow” in the next few years.
Most interesting part of that list: All the big-name actors who caught the boxing bug in the primes of their respective careers. Ryan O’Neal. Jon Voight. Robert De Niro. Denzel Washington. Daniel Day-Lewis. Will Smith. Wesley Snipes. Russell Crowe. Adam Carolla. And now, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Those are 11 of the most successful actors of the past 40 years. (I know, I know, I have Carolla ranked higher than most.) Why boxing? Because it’s the easiest sport to film — all you need are two fighters, a ring, a referee and a crowd of extras — and because it’s such a juicy part for an alpha male. You can delve into the macho world of boxing, work yourself into sick shape, spend half the movie with your shirt off, find redemption (and, hopefully, love), win the big fight, then tell writers in a series of blowhard interviews how you were in the best shape of your life and, not only that, sparred with REAL FIGHTERS (!!!!!) who even said “you could have fought professionally if you wanted to.”
(Note: It’s mildly incredible that Tom Cruise never made a boxing movie for all of these reasons — and, no, “Far and Away” doesn’t count. Can’t you see him sitting on Leno’s sofa as Leno says “Tom, you’ve always kept yourself in good shape, but in this movie wow!” as Cruise overlaughs, then makes some self-serving joke about how Katie Holmes was the big winner because of all the great sex they had thanks to his extra stamina and physical prowess. Yuck. The fact that Cruise never turned Frank Deford’s legendary “The Boxer and the Blonde” feature into a movie and played Billy Conn ranks right up there with “USA 4, USSR 3” and Super Bowl 36 as one of the biggest upsets of the past 40 years.)
Most relevant part of that list: We’ve seen every conceivable variation of the “down on his luck underdog turns his boxing career around and finds love in the process” plot. Of course Mark Wahlberg had trouble getting “The Fighter” made. If you ran a studio and your job depended on picking projects that made money, would a movie centered on boxing, crack and Boston accents grab your attention? You’d know going in that