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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Marciano': Punches Land, but No KO

May 14, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Baseball, football, basketball and even golf (go figure) are far more popular. Yet stories about boxers and boxing--the most primal, most ferocious and arguably least heroic sport of all--have made the best movies.

Somehow within this universe of seediness and brutality, amid the punch drunk and power drunk, opportunities arise for virtue to collide with greed and cynical opportunism. Even though the good guys don't necessarily win.

Spanning more than 50 years, the "best" list would not include the "Rocky" films, even though, pound for pound, they were the most entertaining and cheer worthy. Nor a remake of "Kid Galahad" presenting Elvis Presley as filmdom's first boxing champ who sang more often than he slugged. Nor the epic "On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando's aimless ex-pug, Terry Malloy, being Hollywood's most famous boxer in a movie not about prizefighting.

In the view of one amateur observer of the sport (blush), the best boxing movies from the big screen are, alphabetically:

"Body and Soul," "Champion," "The Great White Hope," "The Harder They Fall," "Raging Bull," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "The Set-Up" and, for sentiment's sake, the Rocky Graziano biography, "Somebody Up There Likes Me." The only television movie qualifying (not counting "Requiem," which originated on TV) is "Don King: Only in America," HBO's dark howl about the ruthless boxing promoter with the famous spiked hair.

Showtime's new "Rocky Marciano" isn't in their class, just as its awkward, punch-absorbing, crouching protagonist was dwarfed by the taller, more graceful fighters he toppled in the ring. Yet it's a nice, enjoyable, uncomplicated movie about the poor son of a Brockton, Mass., shoe factory worker whose lethal right hand, rugged jaw and tenaciousness made him the only undefeated heavyweight champ in history. When he retired in 1956, Marciano had fought 49 times professionally without a loss or draw, winning a whopping 43 times by knockout.

Although puny for a heavyweight at just over 5-10 and about 185 pounds, Marciano had a memorable punch that sportswriter Red Smith said "registered 9 on the Richter scale." Rocky named his devastating right Susie Q, and when it landed flush, Timmmmmberrr!

With Jon Favreau doing good work as the Brockton Blockbuster, as he was known, "Rocky Marciano" is vastly superior to earlier powder-puff TV movies about Jack Dempsey, Mike Tyson and Marciano. Depicting Rocky in the latter was middleweight-sized actor Tony Lo Bianco, who was less menacing in the ring as Marciano than when playing mobster Frankie Carbo in Saturday's Showtime movie.

There's not much texture here, the fight sequences are as unpersuasive as those in even better boxing movies, and the dialogue is occasionally specious, as when a radio announcer proclaims after only the first round: "So far, it's anybody's fight."

Elevating this movie well above the ordinary, though, is the sensitive way director Charles Winkler (son of "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" producer Irwin Winkler) and the teleplay he wrote with Larry Golin and Dick Beebe connect Rocky and his idol, Joe Louis.

They do it indelibly first in a poetic scene showing euphoric residents of young Rocky's blue-collar neighborhood bringing out U.S. flags and sparklers to celebrate heavyweight champ Louis knocking out German Max Schmeling in 1938, a black American symbolically striking a blow against racist Hitler in a triumph seen then as cataclysmic.

When Marciano reluctantly fights Louis (Duane Davis) in 1951, knocking out the broke and aging former champ and ending his comeback, the ring violence is as brutish as any available in a fight film. Yet Winkler, instead of dwelling just on the savagery, gives it a deeper, darker, more soulful dimension by choreographing the mayhem almost as balletic.

Marciano reportedly wept openly when visiting the battered, demoralized Louis in his dressing room afterward, this display of tenderness toward an opponent he'd just tried to destroy probably impossible to comprehend by those of us who have never boxed. In a masterful collage, this reenactment is merged so seamlessly with Marciano visiting Louis in a mental institution 18 years later that when Louis asks, "What happened to me?," you can't be certain he's asking it in 1951 or 1969. Not that it matters, for he's a tragic figure in either case.

Thus does "Rocky Marciano" intersect collaterally with other boxing films whose theme is exploitation en route to tragedy. The used-up Joe Louis we see here, victimized and tossed aside by those he trusted, is hauntingly like Mountain Rivera, the abused heavyweight in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," Rod Serling's TV play that was made into a movie in 1962. And like the behemoth Argentine boxer, Toro Moreno, whom Humphrey Bogart tries to protect from predators in a 1956 rendering of Budd Schulberg's novel, "The Harder They Fall." And like creaky, ever-clobbered Stoker Thompson in the 1949 film "The Set-Up."

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