Writer : Matt Hookings
Director : Daniel Graham
There is a strong relationship between movies and boxing. Scorsese’s Raging Bull is an artistic triumph turning a brutal (or brutalised) character into a tragic human figure. Rocky, the story of an underdog made good, was a real-life Cinderella event transforming the then-unknown writer/ star Sylvester Stallone into a Hollywood player. Matt Hookings, who writes and takes the title role in Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher might prefer to emulate the former but would probably settle for the latter.
At the turn of the nineteenth century Jem Belcher (author Matt Hookings) comes from a family of boxers. From his grandfather Jack Slack (Russell Crowe) he learns the basics of the craft and inherits a distinctive ‘belcher’; a blue-and-white spotted neckerchief worn around his neck. Tiring of being exploited by employers Belcher impulsively enters a boxing match and attracts the attention of trainer Bill Warr (Ray Winstone). Belcher’s rise in boxing is meteoric and he enjoys the benefits of his success not realising fame can be fickle.
Matt Hookings treats the film as a morality/ cautionary tale with a strong undertone of class-consciousness. Belcher is forced into a brutal occupation by the limited opportunities open to his social class and his vulnerability to exploitation; early in the film he is shown as being short-changed by his boss. Boxing, in a somewhat purple phrase, is said to be a stepladder by which a pauper can become a prince; yet there are modern-day parallels as Belcher’s success results in him being treated as a celebrity and over-indulging in the associated easy access to booze and sex.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher catches boxing at the point where it shifts from a shady underground entertainment like cockfighting into a respectable sport. Weighting categories are mentioned and boxing gloves introduced. An historical context is given with well-known actors appearing in cameo roles describing how boxing originated in ancient Greece or debating the merits of the sport. There are not a lot of laughs although Russell Crowe lightens the tone going for the full Falstaff with his rueful boozy womanising grandfather.
Director Daniel Graham does his best to avoid the clichés associated with sports movies but, even so, a training montage pops up and a character who swore never to attend a boxing match appears at a crucial moment to offer Belcher inspiration. Graham sets an authentic nineteenth century atmosphere despite the inevitable limitations of actors all having good teeth and their clothes being clean although well-worn. The lighting is naturalistic so when indoors characters may, realistically, be obscured by the limitations of candlelight or be framed by ravishing scenery while outdoors.
The attitude towards boxing is ambiguous both celebrating the sport while acknowledging its brutal effect. No effort is made to glamorise the violence involved with unflinching depictions of bare fists smacking bloodily into raw flesh. Yet the boxers, while in the ring, are portrayed as professionals doing their jobs- it is only when out of that environment they succumb to temptation. Hookings gives Belcher an addictive personality; incapable of relinquishing the rewards he has achieved or the adrenaline rush of combat. The final fight becomes, therefore, almost a suicide mission – Belcher putting himself in a position where he is forced to give up a profession which is endangering his health.
Matt Hookings turns the major limitation of the film into a strength. The final bout lasts an excruciating 18 rounds which is impossible to portray in detail without becoming boring or deeply depressing as the physical condition of the boxers declines. Hookings, therefore, uses the match to secure the redemption of the characters with the nobility of the boxers starkly contrasting against the behaviour of their exploiters to give an uplifting, if blood-soaked, conclusion.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is an ambitious movie paying tribute to the people instrumental in the development of boxing as a respectable sport while acknowledging the physical effect upon the fighters. The film remains relevant to the present day with the corrosive effect of fame and the exploitation of the workforce continuing to remain issues. While not of the same standard as classics of the boxing movie genre, the film packs a powerful and inspirational punch.
Prizefighter is available to stream on Prime Video from 22 July.