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The 411 Movies Top 5 10.12.12: Week 343 - Top 5 Combat Sports Movies
Posted by Shawn S. Lealos on 10.12.2012

Welcome to Week 343 of the Movie Zone 3 R's. My name is Shawn S. Lealos and you have entered my world.

I mentioned last week that we are opening up one spot each week for a 411mania reader to contribute to the column. There won't be one this week, because only two people responded so far (one was in last week's column, and the other is coming up for a topic he chose in the near future). If you want to have your voice heard and give us your Top 5 for an upcoming topic, click here to email me and I will get you in line to contribute to the column.

This week, Kevin James stars in a new comedy called Here Comes the Boom. He plays a school teacher who decides to get involved in MMA fighting to help raise money for his school's extracurricular programs. While it looks pretty bad, I have spoken to people who saw it that said it was actually a fun movie. I'll have to see that to believe it. However, it gave me the idea for this week's topic.

The Top 5 combat sports movies includes anything from the worlds of boxing, wrestling, MMA fighting and martial arts flicks. The only stipulation is that it needs to be hand-to-hand combat and the sport has to be a major part of the film's plot.

This week's contributors include:
Bryan Kristopowitz (read his take on Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet in The Gratuitous B-Movie Column)
Jeremy Thomas ( Check out his latest The 8 Ball column for the best Liam Neeson movie roles)
John "D-Rock" Dotson (guest writer)
Shawn S. Lealos (check out my ranking of the comic book theatrical releases for 2012 over at Alternate Takes)



5. Cage (1989)

This low budget action flick was an old The Movie Channel and video store mainstay back in the day. It stars Lou Ferrigno and the legendary Reb Brown as old 'Nam buddies who get caught up in an underground cage fighting scheme run by the incredibly evil James Shigeta. Ferrigno's Billy is "a bit slow" after getting shot in the head back in the 'Nam, and Brown's Scott Monroe takes care of him (Billy did save his life. It was the least Scott could do). Scott runs a bar, and Billy helps. Some gangster hooey happens, Billy ends up "helping" the sleazy Tony (Michael Dante), and before Billy and anyone else knows it, Billy is fighting in a cage against the Champion (Chang, as played by the great Tiger Chung Lee). The fights are brutal, nasty affairs, with very few fighters walking out of the cage alive. When Scott eventually comes to the rescue he has to fight in the cage, too, and he sure knows how to kick ass. Watch out for the immortal Al Leong as undercover cop Tiger Joe, Dana Lee as a gangster, and Al fucking Ruscio as a hysterically racist mob boss ("Billy, Bobby, who the fuck cares?"). I don't think this movie is on DVD anymore, which is a damn shame because it deserves to be seen again (The Movie Channel doesn't seem to be interested in showing it anymore). Avoid the sequel Cage II. It has its moments, but it's not as good.

4. Body Slam

Body Slam, directed by the Hal Needham, is the best cinematic example of what I like to call the wrestling fan's ultimate wish: that wrestling was "real," and that the wrestlers actually live the life portrayed during the show. Because this probably what it would be like in real life. There'd be more sex and drugs and booze, sure, but the travel, the fighting with local promoters over the gate, and the sleazy managers (yes, Dirk Benedict's M. Harry Smilac is the hero of the movie, but before he meets Quick Rick Roberts he's pretty much a sleazebag); it would all be part of "the life." And we'd be able to follow it in the sports pages, it'd be on TV, it would be a "real" sport like baseball or basketball. A ridiculous analysis? Absolutely. But go ahead, watch the movie and then think about it a little. If wrestling was real, isn't this how it would be?

3. Bloodsport

Bloodsport, based on a true story (sort of), is a movie about the Kumite, considered the ultimate martial arts competition. It's an illegal, underground affair, and there's a good chance you could die in a fight, but the challenge is just too hard to resist. Jean Claude Van Damme kicks major ass in this as the American butt kicker Frank Dux, as does the great Donald Gibb. It's the movie that made Van Damme a legitimate movie star. Watch that final Kumite fight again. Pure martial arts magic.

2. The Wrestler

This, as far as I know, is the best cinematic example of what the pro wrestling world is really like. We see Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former wrestling megastar, as a broken down old man. He has serious family issues, a steroid problem (and an eventual serious heart problem), and he's basically working for peanuts, both as a wrestler and during the week at his "real job." So why does he do it? Because he loves it. He loves getting in the ring and performing, whether it's a straight up wrestling match or some sort of hardcore thing. As long as there's a crowd to perform in front of he's okay. He lives for the fun of it.

1. Rocky

At first, Rocky was just a movie that featured boxing. It was actually more of a love story and a sort of true underdog story. Could the hardscrabble Rocky Balboa take down the world champion Apollo Creed? But, as movie franchises that manage to go past roman numeral two tend to do, Rocky sort of became boxing. The music, the iconic run up the steps, and the eventual knock down, drag out fights with Creed (twice), Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Tommy Morrison, and Antonio Traver. Actual fights are compared to what happened in Rocky and its sequels. Boxers, real people, are compared to Rocky or some other Rocky character. I doubt any future movie about any sport, combat sport or other sport, will have the same kind of impact as Rocky. I mean, Stallone was just inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. That tells you everything you need to know about what Rocky and its sequels mean in the big scheme of things.


5. Warrior

I know that this film has some detractors, who claim that it's only a good movie if you don't know a lot about MMA. I suppose that's true, but you could also say that The Godfather is only a good film if you aren't that familiar with the Italian mob. If I want to watch as real a depiction as I can on a subject, I'll watch a documentary. When I want to be entertained and see a great story, I'll watch a film and Warrior is both entertaining and a great story, not to mention an incredibly well-acted and directed one. Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte all play flawed individuals from the same family, but they make those flawed people very sympathetic as well. We care about these guys and while it should be a given what's going to happen up until the last fight, director Gavin O'Connor and the screenplay he co-wrote with Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis manages to keep you on the edge of your seat doubting. It's a great underdog movie as well as a well-made family drama, with some thrillingly-shot fight scenes to boot.

4. Enter the Dragon

The martial arts tournament film has a long and storied history ranging from low-rent B-movies to all-time classics (and some all-time classic low-rent B-movies, for that matter). The first one I think of has always been Bruce Lee's final film, Enter the Dragon. The movie is in the National Film Registry and deservedly so, as it was one of the films that helped bring martial arts to American audiences. Here you have a collection of some of the great martial arts actors of that era, as well as the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in minor roles which led to their continued rise thanks to their association with Golden Harvest. I love a great martial arts film and while this may not be the best pure martial arts film, in terms of tournament-style settings it is certainly my favorite.

3. The Wrestler

411mania went absolutely crazy over this film upon its release, and rightly so. It remains one of the absolute best films in the combat sports genre, and certainly the best wrestling one. Mickey Rourke sent the rejuvenation of his career into overdrive as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in Darren Aronofsky's drama, which reminded us that despite evidence to the contrary in the likes of No Holds Barred and Ready to Rumble, films about professional wrestling can be not only good, but amazing. From the great backstage stuff to the shockingly good in-ring work, Aronofsky made sure to really capture what it's like to live on the independent scene and along the way he crafted a great story of a broken-down man looking for redemption in his life. Well-acted, smartly-written and brilliantly shot, it actually transcends its genre to become more than just a great combat sports film, but a great film period.

2. Rocky

Can anyone really doubt this one being near the top of the list? I imagine some people will be outraged it's not #1, and frankly it was a tough decision. A lot of people throughout the years have given Sylvester Stallone crap for being a bad actor and I won't argue that he's given some bad performances, but no one who is simply a "bad actor" could deliver such a fantastic performance as he does here. It's one of the greatest underdog stories ever told and deservedly has a legacy of being iconic. From Stallone's work as Rocky Balboa in and out of the ring to Talia Shire's fantastic performance, the great Burgess Meredith as Mickey, the famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art...yeah, this definitely deserves to be up near the top.

1. Raging Bull

Only one film could possibly keep Rocky out of #1, and it is a fellow boxing film. Funny thing that, considering I'm not even a boxing fan. But boxing films just have a pedigree that other combat sports do not, as of yet, carry. Robert De Niro's performance as Jake LaMotta is the only one that can possibly top Stallone's in pound-for-pound quality. De Niro gained sixty pounds in order to play LaMotta in his later years and submerged himself fully within the world of boxing. Scorsese films the fight scenes in such a way as to make them pure works of art, while framing the film brilliantly around LaMotta's life. It is one of those movies that, even if you are not a sports fan, you really have to see because its influence on the landscape of modern cinema cannot be denied.


5. Fearless

Jet Li's movie career in the U.S. hasn't really impressed me. However, his overseas films are a usually a different story. Fearless is one of those films I hold in high regard. This is a film that has almost everything you could ever want from a martial arts epic - tragedy, love, redemption, and most of all, extraordinary fight sequences. The movie also deals with such themes such as vengeance, and the problematic outcome of trying to seek it. The story itself is also based off a real life martial arts fighter, Huo Yuanija, who was something of a legend in China. So, if you are hunting for a movie in the competitive fight genre and want a little history to go along with it, then seek this one out - you will not regret it.

4. Cinderella Man

Cinderella Man is the story of Jim Braddock's return to professional boxing during the depression and is fascinating, as well as, emotionally engaging. This movie is an example of a film that was released at the wrong time of year, and then became extremely overlooked during award season. This is one of Russell Crowe's finest performances, as well as, one of the last good Ron Howard movies that I can remember watching - not counting Frost/Nixon. This is a shining example of when Crowe and Howard work together, it is nothing short of greatness.

3. Redbelt

I'm not too familiar with the film catalogue of David Mamet, but Redbelt was my first introduction to the director. Chiwetel Ejiofor, plays an idealist martial arts instructor who gets pulled into the world of entertainment after saving a movie star in a bar fight. What I found so interesting about this film is how it incorporated the problems with Hollywood integrity and aligned them with the integrity of the martial arts world. Rather than it being an underdog story, this is a movie about the battle for preserving honor within art forms of any nature. This is a very unique film and is definitely one to watch if you are looking for something different within this genre.

2. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's moody portrayal of the harsh world of wrestling stuck with me long after the first viewing of The Wrestler. Whether you believe that wrestling is real or fake will not matter by the time you finish your journey with Randy "The Ram" Robinson, which is brilliantly played by Mickey Rourke. Rourke carries the film masterfully by showing how the wrestling world takes a toll on the performer's body and soul. Aronofsky's direction gives the film even greater weight because of the documentarian style approach he took while shooting the film, which increases the realism of the movie. With a haunting finale that will leave you breathless, this is a film that should never be overlooked.

1. Warrior

What's better than an underdog story? How about two within one kick-ass film? Every single elemental story aspect of this film gets my blood pumping just thinking back on it. I love this film because of how it portrays the struggles in father, son, and brother relationships, which is the central core of the movie. The two individual story dynamics between Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as brothers competing for the same form of championship redemption, made it uneasy to decide who to be rooting for by the time the film reached its powerful conclusion. If any male says this movie's finale did not have them choked up, they're a damn liar.


5. Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood stars in and directs this movie about a grizzled old boxing trainer that takes in a tough female boxer and works to help her fight to be a champion. The boxing action in the movie is great, which should be expected since actress Hilary Swank trained for three months to learn how to box. Eastwood and Morgan Freeman also turn in solid performances in this heartbreaking look at the dangers of boxing.

4. The Wrestler

While many fight fans don't consider professional wrestling as anything more than fake entertainment, what the competitors do in the ring is far from fake. Director Darren Aronofsky visits the sport of professional wrestling and takes the viewer inside the ring. We see everything, from the planning of the matches to the razors the athletes use to draw their own blood. We also see the toll it takes on the body and the pain it inflicts on the psyche of men used to adulation when the cheers finally die. "The Wrestler" is one of the best movies ever made about athletes when they reach the end of the road.

3. When We Were Kings

The documentary, "When We Were Kings," shows the lead-in to the championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The film focuses on Ali and his interaction with the people of Zaire, while Foreman remained secluded in his training and preparation. The parallels between the boxers show why Ali was so popular and Foreman was not. Despite this, Foreman was favored to win the match and Ali fought for everything he achieved here. This movie showed Ali at his best.

2. Raging Bull

While "Rocky" was a movie about an underdog fighting for respect, "Raging Bull" was a movie about a boxing champion fighting his own demons. Robert De Niro stars as Jake La Motta in this movie based on the life of the real life fighter. Director Martin Scorsese does not avoid the controversy as the movie focuses on the personal life of La Motta as his wife beating, paranoid ways marked the end of his successful career. The boxing scenes are also some of the best ever filmed, shot in black and white and framed beautifully to show the violence inflicted on the boxers.

1. Rocky

The best boxing movie, and probably the best sports movie of all time, is "Rocky." Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the best boxing movie ever made as a down-and-out-boxer who gets the chance to fight the world champion to fulfill a once in a lifetime dream. The movie hits all the notes of a successful sports flick and ends on a surprising note, that passes up the happy ending but remains satisfying as well. "Rocky" won three Oscars and remains the sports movie that all others pattern themselves after.

Don't forget, if you want to take part in a future Top 5, click here to email me and I will get you involved. Also, if you have any ideas for what topic you would like to see us use, leave a comment in the awesome new comment section below.

Now, let us know what you think about this week's topic. Which sports movie did you like best?


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