Monday, August 5, 2013

Giants, Fat and Thin

The Harder They Fall: adapted by Philip Yordan from the novel by Budd Schulberg; directed by Mark Robson; starring Humphrey Bogart (Eddie Willis), Rod Steiger (Nick Benko), Mike Lane (Toro Moreno), Max Baer (Buddy Brannen), Jersey Joe Walcott (George), and Jan Sterling (Beth Willis) (1956): A remarkably pointed and cynical film about professional boxing in the United States, anchored by a weary, dying Humphrey Bogart in his last screen role.

Bogart's out-of-work sports writer takes a high-paying job as a press agent for a mobster with a gargantuan fighter from Argentina. However, the fighter can't really fight. But that's not a problem, as the mobster simply fixes every fight until the boxer gets a shot at the heavyweight championship.

And if this sounds implausible, keep in mind that this is the story many sports historians believe is the truth behind the improbable rise and fall of gargantuan, gargantuanally unskilled boxer Primo Carnera, who unsuccessfully sued the makers of this movie because he believed it libelled him.

Oh, boxing!

The cast is mostly excellent, with a young Rod Steiger under control and unmannered (and boy, would Steiger become mannered!) as the mob boss. Bogart is as world-weary and conflicted as he's ever been in a film, a good man who cooperates for a time in his own moral destruction. The role of Bogart's wife could use work, though -- she's a one-note Jiminy Cricket.

Mike Lane is lumbering and charming as the giant boxer who doesn't know he's a terrible boxer, or how hollow the endless promises of money are. This must be the first boxing movie in history whose stomach-walloping climax comes not in the ring but in a backroom, as the mobster's book-keeper figures out how much money the boxer is owed after the months and months of fights leading up to the big-purse championship bout.

Real-life boxer Jersey Joe Walcott plays the boxer's sympathetic, soft-spoken sparring partner, while the menacing Max Baer, who ended Carnera's championship career with a terrible beating, essentially plays the same role here as a champ who actually exults in the death of one of his opponents after a fight. Sharply written and smartly filmed. Highly recommended.

 


Alex Cross: adapted by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson from the novel by James Patterson; directed by Rob Cohen; starring Tyler Perry (Alex Cross), Edward Burns (Thomas Kane), Matthew Fox (Picasso), Jean Reno (Giles Mercier), and Cicely Tyson (Nana) (2012): Shockingly competent thriller based on novelist James Patterson's thrillers about detective/psychiatrist Alex Cross, previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and here played by Tyler Perry in a non-Tyler Perry production.

Perry is fine and fairly charismatic as Cross, and Edward Burns is competent as his long-time friend and fellow police detective. In what amounts to an 'origin story,' with Cross still working for the police department in Detroit and not the FBI, Cross and his team of investigators are tasked with stopping the assassination of a French tech magnate played by Jean Reno.

The really shocking thing, though, is how much weight Matthew Fox lost to play the role of the loopy, hyper-competent assassin whom Cross's team dubs 'Picasso' for the cubist sketches he leaves at each killing site. Fox nearly approaches Christian Bale Machinist territory for freakish attention to the physical. I think he's actually scary because his weight loss verges on the uncanny, and that weight loss makes Matthew Fox look like Michael Rooker's long-lost brother. Weird stuff.

The movie lacks one thing -- a second act. It has a prologue, a first act, a third act, and an epilogue. In the middle, though, it's as if the studio edited out 20 minutes of plot and character development. It's also a surprisingly cold-blooded movie, one that more evokes the thrillers of the 1970's than the more congenial thrillers of the 21st century. Recommended.

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