Monday, 29 June 2015

CHAMPS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compelling Boxing Doc takes fresh perspective

Champs (2014)
Dir. Bert Marcus
Starring: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins,
Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent

Review By Greg Klymkiw

This compelling documentary about three world championship boxers is comprised of the usual mix of archival footage, "guest" celebrity commentators (like Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent) and some decent re-enactments, but the real cinematic pile-driver is found in the superb interviews with boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins.

When the camera eye of director Bert Marcus gives over to the faces and voices of these punch-ugly old guys and just lets them tell their stories, Champs is not only magical, but one of the most insightful approaches to capturing the lives, both successes and failures, of the world's greatest living boxers.

Surprisingly, the least of this film's concerns is the boxing, it's everything that took these men from the bottom to the top (and sometimes back down again). And don't worry, there's plenty of pugilistic action, but the movie's raison d'être is the humanity of these men and how their lives have been a constant struggle to find it in themselves.

Focusing upon the notion of boxers as modern-day gladiators, each of these men came from abject poverty, neglect, abuse and childhoods devoted to crime. Their only defence on the mean streets was being able to use their fists. Two of the subjects (Tyson and Holyfield) found their way to local boxing clubs to find a way out, while one of them (Hopkins) makes his mark in prison before his release into the free world to ply his trade.

Most poignantly, Tyson and Holyfield recount pulling all manner of heists for whatever money the local thug bosses would toss their way, but at least they could scramble enough together for basic needs like food and clothing. Hopkins laments how prisons have become privatized to the hilt and how programs like the amateur prison boxing leagues are being decimated.

As several of the commentators in the film state more than once, you don't see "rich kids" lining up to be boxers, it's a "poor man's sport" aimed at fans willing to pay top-dollar to see human beings pulverize each other like slabs of meat being tenderized. Those men who beat themselves senseless for the edification of well-heeled audiences can often earn money that barely takes them above the poverty line.

One of the more sickening revelations is the lack of standardized safety rules, most of which are legislated at state-wide or even civic levels. Boxing is such big business, that many unscrupulous politicians lower the standards to whatever will ensure the greatest profits (for everyone but the boxers). This extends to healthcare also. In order to maintain proper medical maintenance, one needs to be a genuine champion and even then, money mysteriously disappears into the black holes of "expenses".

Though Champs could have done without the celebrity commentators and a bit less of the dramatic re-enactments, the picture is slickly made and, for the most part, careens along at a snappy pace. The real stars, though, are the trio of boxers and one only wishes the whole film could have gone against tradition and kept most of the proceedings to "talking heads".

Far too many critics and even financiers (broadcasters, distributors, commissioning editors, etc.) use the knee-jerk "talking heads" fall-back perspective. However, if the subjects are genuinely great (as they are here) and when the skill of the interviewer (director Marcus) yields so much rich material, "talking heads" become highly cinematic.


Champs is available on DVD via Anchor Bay/Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada.