The Phantom Punch is a biopic of boxer Sonny Liston, and not a very good one.
Ving Rhames evokes Liston quite well, although he is twenty years too old for
the role, but the film is a pedestrian and
rather old-fashioned effort which offers neither compelling storytelling nor
lively direction. In fact, the direction includes just about every cliché
necessary to recreate a 1930's boxing film, except maybe stock footage of trains
chugging on one direction with a "Boston" word slide superimposed, followed by
trains going in the other direction with a "Philadelphia" word slide. Oh, and
maybe it could have used a 365 day calendar with the pages falling off one at a
time during a montage of successive fights. But if it had used those clichés,
they would have fit right in. The director did use very similar techniques.
In terms of the two great Liston controversies, the film offers the following:
1. The script posits that Liston did not take a dive in either Ali fight, and
never took nor would take a dive in his life, not even from the phantom punch
(below) which gave the film its title.
2. The screenplay does have an original spin on the death of Liston. As the
story is told here, Sonny's manager found out that Sonny was having an affair
with his girlfriend. As revenge, the mob-connected manager failed to pass
along some important high-level mob instructions to Liston, and then told the
local don that Sonny had received the instructions (taking dives) and had refused to comply. The
mobsters, the same men who built Sonny's career in the first place, thus engineered
the death of their ungrateful protégé.
The problem with taking these two positions is that they are inherently
contradictory. By presenting Sonny as a proud man who would never throw a fight,
the film rendered the manager/girlfriend angle nugatory. If Sonny was
really as proud as he was pictured here, then there was no need for the manager
to tell a lie to the mobsters. He could simply have asked Sonny to throw the
fights, as the mob asked him to do. The Sonny of this film would have refused,
and that refusal would have signed his death warrant. Furthermore, it made
absolutely no difference that Sonny was sleeping with the guy's girlfriend in
the first place. Let's assume the opposite - that Sonny and the manager had been
on the best of terms, and that the manager wished only the best for his fighter.
In that case he would have relayed the mob's requests, the Sonny as presented
here would have refused to take a dive, and the result again would have been the
same. In other words, the manager/girlfriend angle was completely irrelevant to
the plot. The point is that if the mob wanted Sonny to take a dive, and if Sonny was
really unwilling to do so, as pictured here, then no other details could alter
the final result, and the manager's failure to relay the request would have had
no effect on whether Sonny lived or died. Obviously, the only way the girlfriend/manager angle makes
sense is if the manager had known that Sonny WOULD have agreed to play ball with
the mobsters. In that case, the manager's failure to relay the info to Liston
would have been the difference between life and death for Liston, and would have
been revenge for the alienated affections of his sweetie. But that particular
version of Sonny Liston, the flexible and reasonable guy who might have been willing to take a dive
in certain circumstances, is not the
Sonny Liston presented here. In other words, if the film wants to stick with
point #2 above, it needs to alter point #1.
None. Brigitte Wilson-Sampras
does a sex scene, but she somehow manages to keep everything covered, even
in the throes of passion.
If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to
explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by
our definition, a
C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs
and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:
I'm being generous. I think you'll find it rough sledding -
sometimes boring, sometimes contradicting itself - even if you
are interested in the subject matter, but I made it through the
film without the fast forward button, and that's my basic
minimum bar for a C-.