Screens » Film & TV

Armchair Cinephile

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Ving Rhames may be a boxer in the new Undisputed, but HBO's freshly released DVD, Don King: Only In America, has him playing boxing's most famous outside-the-ropes character. In its directing and script, the flick has "made for TV" stamped all over it, but once King starts conniving and cajoling, Rhames is splendificoriably entertaining — the Golden Globes even gave him a statue for his performance. Watching King, caught in a tight spot, sell a reverend's wife on the appropriateness of the word "motherfucker" is worth the rental price by itself.

While 1962's devastating Requiem For A Heavyweight (Columbia/TriStar) was scripted by legendary TV scribe Rod Serling, it is pure cinema from the opening shot, which inches down a packed bar as dozens of fight fans watch a critical bout on the boob tube above them. Cut to an impressionistic point-of-view sequence of the man in the ring, who's receiving the beating of a career; the image blurs and staggers, and the knockout punch is a quick-fading freeze-frame. On the sad trip away from the ring, we look into a mirror and are introduced to ourselves: Anthony Quinn, as a has-been heavyweight who lumbers innocently through every scene, mumbling and heavy-lidded. It's a heartbreaking performance, and a thoroughly convincing one; even the way Quinn wraps his huge mitts around a beer bottle adds to our feel for the character.

Director Ralph Nelson cut his teeth in the golden days of television, and everything he puts in the frame adds to the story, from the way Quinn struggles with rejection (in an elevator with railings reminiscent of the ropes), to the crane shot that watches the fighter as he says a hopeful goodnight to a sweet girl, and is left in an intersection by the departing taxi.

Quinn's character is backed by a promoter and trainer played, respectively, by Jackie Gleason and a very un-Mickey-and-Judy Mickey Rooney. Rooney, as an ex-puncher himself, sits sadly by as Gleason's deadbeat wheeler-dealer squeezes every last bit of dignity out of his devoted client. As the story draws to a close with another POV shot, a very simple act of loyalty becomes almost shockingly humiliating for the soul-dead boxer.

Robert Benton's 1972 Bad Company (Paramount), not to be confused with this summer's unrelated dud, also revolves around partners who can't be trusted, though here the drama is tempered with ample humor. A very young Jeff Bridges (fresh from The Last Picture Show) plays the leader of a no-good bunch of kids in the Old West. He manages to convince a sturdy church boy, Drew, to join them — though Drew (on the run because he's evading induction into the Union army) swears to himself he won't do anything dishonest.

The supposed plot is the boys' disastrous attempt to cross the country to a silver-mining town, but the film is really about the friction between the two boys, who have to work together to survive but never bring themselves to put all their cards on the table. Bridges may have a doughy child's face, but he already projects leading-man charisma, which is quite an asset when the film winds up with just two kids, one mule, and a whole lot of grass to its name.

Benton (Bonnie & Clyde, Places in the Heart) is recognized mostly for his writing — and Bad Company is smartly scripted, with enough witty banter to carry one close-shave episode into another — but the film's words are more than matched by the painterly compositions in which Benton frames his actors. You might say it's hard to go wrong with a face in the foreground and a stark, golden field in the distance, but plenty of directors have shot the same thing and captured none of its beauty. Whether the actors fight with guns on a grassy plain or with gloves on a flat white mat, the terrain is always an important character in the drama.

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