Sports movies refer to films revolving around any sport, and while basketball or even football are popular the world over, there is no sport that has had more movies made about the activity than boxing.
Maybe it’s the passion that surrounds it, the human spirit, sheer brutality, or even the money, but whatever the inspiration, boxing films have brought amazing performances from Hollywood, birthing classics including the Rocky series, Raging Bull, Southpaw, Ali, Creed, Million Dollar Baby and more – all of which have knocked our socks off with their raw, gritty exploration of the physical activity.
But what makes the sport even more cinematically astounding, is that so many of these films are based on true stories, and Matt Hookings and Daniel Graham’s Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is yet another contender entering the ring, taking boxing fans back to the turn of the last century, in early 19th century England.
This biographical drama, about the birth of boxing as a sport, explores the life of Jem Belcher, who became the youngest ever world champion boxer, and the Champion of England. Growing up watching his revered grandfather Jack Slack (Russell Crowe) fight as a prize fighter, the young Belcher (Hookings) follows in his footsteps, despite the cries of his mother (Jodhi May) and at age 22, was left partially blind before he died at the young age of 30.
A standard underdog story, viewers see Jem emerge as a champion, only to meet his downfall and then ascend back to glory. The movie takes viewers through the ordinary linear flow of life, as we can expect, but doesn’t delve deep enough to make us care about him or the seemingly tumultuous life he’s had.
The first act introduces young Jem captivated by his grandfather Jack, who’s now old, grey, alcoholic, broke and fighting for a couple of coins, to spend on women and liquor. How this man became an inspiration to Belcher is beyond us because we see nothing inspiring about him at all. His introduction, whilst seemingly important to introduce the young Jem to the world of boxing, did not deserve as much screen time as it did.
The role feels wasted on Oscar-winning actor Crowe, who despite his credentials as a captivating actor, cannot make viewers care or share the same adoration Jem had for Jack Slack. All it did was emphasise over and over again that the life of a boxer is not one that one should aspire to, and that Belcher’s mother Mary hates him for it and wants her son to be as far away as possible from the world of boxing.
Of course, the young upstart pulls an Uno-reverse and if you think that’s where things get interesting, well, it doesn’t. For a film on boxing, there weren’t plenty of exciting boxing scenes. We only see Belcher fight twice before the big climax fight at the end of the movie – the first at a local fair where he gets spotted by Bill Warr (Ray Winstone) who later becomes his coach, and another when he wins the title of ‘Champion of England’.
And for a film that’s meant to make the audience aware of a forgotten historical person, we leave the theatre not knowing much about the man at all. Outside of the two boxing matches we see, we get scenes of Jem turning to the same vices that led to his grandfather’s demise. He begins drinking and gambling, and somehow lands himself in jail – something that the movie didn’t explain how or why he got there. One moment he’s drunk and stumbling around, the next he’s locked up. During his time incarcerated, another champion, Henry Pearce (Glen Fox), takes his place and a slighted Jem eagerly challenges him after his release so that he can reclaim his title.
The whole time, we don’t see what makes Jem tick, what his values are and why he behaves the way he does. There seems to be no motivation behind the man aside from sheer ego. There isn’t a burning passion inside him; no sportsmanship, and nothing likeable for viewers to attach themselves to, or even attempt to identify with. For every punch the movie throws at audiences, few connect, which is rather dismissive of a biopic that many do not know about. Instead, the movie only touches on two very important aspects of Jem’s life: how he went partially blind and the forgotten fight between him and Henry.
The fight between Belcher and Henry serves as the movie’s climax, and it is by far, one of the bloodiest and most intense boxing matches we’ve seen in cinema. The match is so raw, you will flinch at the sight of blood spurting out of the actors. It is only in this scene that viewers actually care about Belcher’s well-being, as watching Henry serve punch after punch will make any person concerned and uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the climax only comes towards the end of the film and despite running for only an hour and 47 minutes, Prizefighter feels much longer than it is. Aside from the poor and inconsistent storytelling, the pace of the movie is slow and lacklustre that staying up until the big climax feels like an impossible task.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher creates so much hoo-hah around a forgotten figure and point in history in its marketing, that it actually fails to engage with the audience and inform them why this is even worth remembering in the first place. No amount of familiar faces like Crowe, Hookings and even May can save the movie from being a bore. The film compresses important events of the character’s life into haphazard montages and focuses a bit too much on everything else but Jem and boxing. Unless you’re looking specifically for films on boxers or are fascinated to know some parts of Jem Belcher, you’re likely better off putting legacy films like Creed and Rocky for the millionth time to get your boxing fix.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Neither a prize fight or a knockout, Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is a forgettable film on a forgotten person and moment in history.
Story - 5/10
Direction - 6/10
Characterisation - 5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 4/10