The documentary "Klitschko" shows brothers Vitali, left,… (Corinth Films )
The writer A.J. Liebling famously called boxing "the sweet science," but it doesn't always play out that way in fight films, where boxers often come off as lacking in personality, intelligence or both. When it comes to the subjects of "Klitschko," however, there is a lot more to the story than we are used to getting — twice as much, in fact.
That's because this fascinating documentary is the story of two Ukrainian brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, who have done something unprecedented in their sport: They're both world heavyweight champions, simultaneously holding between them the titles of all five boxing federations.
The Klitschkos reached that pinnacle, one sports journalist explains, because they are "the most intelligent heavyweights ever," speaking four languages apiece and adding "killer instinct, power and finesse" to the mix.
But though this artful film by German documentarian Sebastian Dehnhardt does not stint on inside-the-ring footage, its main attraction is the intense interpersonal dynamic between the brothers, a family bond so strong that they've vowed never to get in the ring with each other because their mother is implacably against it.
One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it initially makes no attempt to tell the two brothers apart, even though we need the help because they look enough alike to be mistaken for twins. This is probably an intentional device, meant to emphasize a bred-in-the-bone closeness that the brothers view as, in Vitali's words, "a secret weapon. We are two people in the ring. We give each other extra support. With that, no one can stop you."
That closeness comes courtesy of a particularly cohesive family unit. The Klitschkos' father was a career Soviet military officer who was transferred frequently and ended up having a key part in the Chernobyl cleanup. The family developed a tight, us-against-the-world attitude, with the boys devoted to their mother and the senior Klitschko drilling into his sons from childhood the notion that if you get into a fight, you must walk away the winner.
The brothers were initially attracted to kickboxing before eventually gravitating toward boxing itself. Moving to Germany in 1995 (the film's interviews are conducted in their fluent German), the Klitschkos both turn pro after younger brother Wladimir wins the Olympic gold medal in 1996.
One of the film's funniest sequences, in fact, involves wily promoter Don King's courtship of the boys just after the Olympics. They turn down an offer from him because Vitali shrewdly comes to believe almost at once, "He is not an honest person."
As "Klitschko" progresses, its early reluctance to differentiate between the brothers fades and we get a clear sense of what makes them different both as fighters and people.
Inside the ring, Wladimir, now coached by legendary veteran Emanuel Steward, has a classic style and increasingly treats boxing as a strategic chess match. Vitali, for his part, has lightning reflexes and what one former coach calls "an unorthodox cowboy style. There's no telling what he'll do next."
Vitali, that coach notes vividly, is made of stone, hard to mold, while Wladimir is made of clay, easier to mold but weathering more quickly. It is Wladimir who sums up the differences best: "He was born a fighter; I became one."
As impressive as it is to watch the Klitschkos take people apart with punishing blows, the reality is that both of their careers have had major ups and downs. What is key for both of them is, as the film details, how they are able time and again to come back from agonizing adversity.
Though always mutually supportive, one of the constants in the relationship between the siblings is that the five-years-older Vitali has been the big brother for so long he sometimes has a hard time letting go of that role and thinking of Wladimir as a fellow adult.
Articulate, thoughtful and funny — hearing Vitali talk about getting used to 100 kinds of cheese in the West is a real pleasure — the Klitschkos are a treat to spend conversational time with. Just don't think of joining them in the ring.