The cliches associated with the sports genre are probably unavoidable and are mostly loved by the fans around the globe. Most sports movies will have an underdog individual or a team winning an event against all odds, but we all love that emotionally uplifting feeling at the end of a sports movie. There are some breathtaking and brilliant underdog sports movies like Rocky, The Fighter, The blind side, Miracle, Warrior etc. and adrenaline pumping movies like Rush or Ford vs Ferrari which dealt with instances of fierce rivalry from the sports world. But there are a few movies which remarkably walks away from these cliches, playing in a different league all together. I am picking a few of my favorites from those brilliant variants in no particular order.
Raging Bull(1980), directed by Martin Scorsese, is a biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta depicting his life events spanning from 1940s to 60s. Jake was at his prime in the ‘40s and was known for his rough fights. His brother Joey LaMotta was his manager and got him title shots with his mafia connections. Jake married his girlfriend Vickie. But his growing doubs over Vickie having relationships with other men affected him in ring as well, which often resulted him viciously beating his opponents. The movie portrays how his career growth is affected by his sexual jealousy, compulsive rage, disturbed relationships with his brother and wife, his errors in judgement etc. Robert De Niro gives a towering performance as the boxer who is going through deep paranoia, winning him the Oscar in 1981, with Scorsese brilliantly capturing the essence of this deeply disturbing tale. The whole movie is shown in black and white color tone as Scorsese wanted his movie to stand out visually from the boxing movies of that time. Raging Bull is considered to be one of the greatest sports films ever made and for me, probably the best along with Rocky(1976).
The Damned United(2009) is about Brian Clough’s controversial 44- days stint as Leeds united Manager. Clough was already one of the bright new prospects among football managers during his time at Derby county and was critical about Leeds United’s then manager Don Revie for his physical style of play. He was sacked by Derby County in 1973 because of internal conflicts with the owners related to allocation of transfer funds. He then joined Brighton and Hove Albion with his associate Peter Taylor. But after an 8 months stint, he chose to sign for Leeds United when an offer came by, while Taylor remained committed to Brighton. His failure to win the players and some controversial decisions put Leeds under threat of relegation. His ill-fated tenure ended after 44-days, bringing the self-centered man to his knees. There is not much on field football action, but it is a well written, intense football movie and a deep character study written by David peace and directed by Tom Hooper. Micheal Sheen’s portrayal of Brian Clough was nothing short of brilliant. This is a must watch for football lovers and sports enthusiasts alike as it simply portrays a completely different back-end sports story. Note: Clough, later went on to become one of the famous English managers when he won two European titles with Nottingham Forest which is beautifully covered in the documentary I believe in miracles(2015).
Million Dollar Baby(2004) directed by Clint Eastwood, is a story about the association of a veteran boxing coach and an aspiring boxer who wants to make it to the big stage. It walks through familiar routes till the final few minutes, with an aspiring boxer, a veteran trainer, their ever growing bonding, preparation for a million dollar title fight with a cocky opponent etc. But when we are just ready for a triumphant, elating climax, the movie takes us to unimaginably deep emotional pit by a tragic event in the boxing ring. An exceptionally well executed movie with stunning performance from Hillary Swank, ably supported by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, it reminds us that sports is not only about celebration or victories, but also about the broken or unfulfilled dreams of very many who failed to make it big. The movie won 4 Oscars, for the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a lead role, and Best Actor in a supporting role(for Freeman).
Foxcatcher (2014) is the haunting real life story of Olympic wrestler-brothers Mark and David Schultz, who joined multimillionaire John Du Pont’s wrestling facility “Foxcatcher” for training towards 1988 Seoul Olympics. Both Schultz brothers were gold medal winners in 1984 Olympics and Mark always felt he was under the shadow of Dave. The movie takes us to 1987, when Mark joins John Du Pont’s Foxcatcher wrestling facility when an invitation comes and Dave stays back because of his commitment towards family. Mark builds friendship with John and the training with the fellow boxers helps him win the 1987 World Wrestling Championship. But soon, Mark’s relationship with John deteriorates and John forces Dave to join them to which he agrees. John’s unconventional methods and eccentric behavior creates a lot of questions and doubts over his credibility as their stay at the facility goes on. The movie’s intense treatment creates more anguish as it progresses. Steve Carell came out of his comedian image and gave a stunning portrayal of Du Pont and was brilliantly supported by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum.
The Wrestler(2008) is about an ageing wrestler coming into terms with the fact that he was in the twilight of his career and his struggles outside the ring to get on with his new life. The protagonist here is Robin Ramzinski, aka ‘the Ram’, who was a wrestling celebrity in the 80s. His prime is long gone, but agrees for the proposal of a 20th anniversary rematch with one of his major opponents, in an attmept to regain his stardom. His struggles to regain fitness puts him in serious health issues and finally he decides to quit boxing. It is a honest, heart-felt drama exceptionally well acted by Mickey Rourke in the lead role. The movie was directed by Darren Aronofsky, which brilliantly portrayed the story of a declining star, who achieved lot of accolades and stardom in his prime.
United (2011) is British television film directed by James Strong, which is about the legendary Busby Babes, a young Manchester United team managed by Matt Busby, and the tragic 1957 Munich plane crash that consumed the lives of eight of them. A heart breaking and tragic tale of a team of players who were predicted to become the next superstars in world football, United is hard to sit through without weeping. The movie does end with some redemption when the Asst. Manager Jimmy Murphy vows to prepare the team for their next home game, along with young Bobby Charlton, who went on to become a club legend. The movie depicts one of the most defining moments in the history of Manchester United.
“All these movies brilliantly work as much needed variants to the usual underdog sports thrillers or drama. Please suggest other sports movies that chose different paths.”