Film: It could have been a contender

Boxing's compressed and explosive drama has made some great movies. Southpaw isn't one of them.
Eddie, the fight game in this country is failing apart. The boys are getting too smart. They all wanna go to college and be doctors and lawyers. They don't wanna fight for a livin' no more."

True, true. Everyone in boxing is saying the same thing. This Nick Banca is perspicacious. Here's another thing he told Eddie: "The fight game today is all about show business. The best showman becomes the champ." See? On the button. And Nick wasn't even saying it today. He was saying it in 1956, to Humphrey Bogart, who played Eddie in The Harder They Fall, in the opening scene of the best boxing film ever made.

Eddie is a fallen former big-name sportswriter. He sells his soul to Nick (Rod Steiger), boxing promoter and seriously powerful gangster. The deal is that Eddie, previously a man of impeccable if constantly buffeted integrity, has to mastermind the hype surrounding Toro Moreno. EI Toro is a giant, a freak of nature. He can't fight a lick and smarts-wise he's no more than an innocent child, but it doesn't matter. His every victory will be fixed until he reaches the golden payday of a heavyweight title challenge. There, of course, he will be annihilated. But it will be a very good bit of business for Nick, and Eddie will get a big slice, too.

Just putting down the transcripted quotes of this old film can make you feel engaged, perhaps a little Runyonesque, intoxicated by the extremes of the boxing world; its compression of our long existences, the barely perceptible dips in our graphs where aspiration turned to manageable disappointment. Not like in boxing: there you get a jagged graph like a lightning bolt, always ending in that steep descent, you get white heat and icy darkness in one three-minute round, multiple tear-stained lifetimes all in the space of one fighter's six-year career. You can understand why film-makers and writers get drawn to it. There's more material than you can use. There's guaranteed pathos. It's so easy.

And, the best thing is, it's still there. In a town near you: the boxing gym. Crammed with eager kids - invariably the majority will be the poorest kids - just starting off on that doomed rollercoaster ride. Why not slip back to 1956 for a while? In the early 90s I showed a tape of The Harder to a young London middleweight I knew, a medium-ranking pro. As the credits rolled, he leapt up and unleashed a four-punch combination at the air excitedly. "That film has got it man!" he exclaimed. "Nuffin's changed! I'm tellinyah! Nuffin!"

That's the key, you see. Boxing is the same story, over and over again. It's only the names of the boxers that change. So if you're going to tell the story on film (I mean, tell it with a view to saying something) you'd better be good, because you're going to be directly comparable with every other film that's told the story before: not just The Harder, but films such as Raging Bull and Fat City with Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges.

Actually, Raging Bull might have eclipsed The Harder but for a terrible piece of casting that gives the role of Sugar Ray Robinson, the pound- for pound slickest, deadliest, handsomest boxer-puncher ever to lace them on, to a novice actor who not only obviously can't fight but is ugly, too. Otherwise, of course, it's a magical, beautifully shot truth-ride; and, speaking as someone who's watched the ref's fingers unfurl over him from a canvas-prone position, also replicates better than anything the strange, dark neurone-popping mood of the ring when you're being rendered semi-conscious in public.

As for Fat City it too is a gem and is a solid No.3. It's director, John Huston, a former amateur boxer, was a fight nut who also understood the ring's tragic grandeur with true, regretful wisdom.

What all three films have in common is that, like the best fighters, they know exactly what they are doing. The Runyonesque stuff is there but it's just a feint, to lead you in, to take you down into the real trade, the meat end.

Which brings me, finally, to Southpaw. I would have put it in higher but I wanted Southpaw to know what it's up against. Southpaw comes with all the apparel of a feature film. It's title is preceded by the words, "Downtown Pictures Present..." It's being represented by a PR company and it's getting a cinema release. In fact, it's a documentary about an Irish amateur fighter, Francis Barrett. Nothing wrong in that. A decade ago the photographer, Bruce Weber, made a beautiful documentary, Broken Noses, which also passed the art test, and that's not even mentioning When We Were Kings. But if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk...

Francis Barrett can fight. He's a young brawler who's all over you from first bell to last. His defence is not the best but he is all heart and, win or lose, he won't let you down. You may remember him from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

He was said to be the first "traveller" to be picked for Ireland. He carried the flag at the opening ceremony, only to be eliminated in the second round by a useful African jab-and-mover. Southpaw covers this journey and his subsequent ongoing struggle to get in shape for the Sydney 2000 games. You can't go wrong with a subject like Francis. Forget 1956, his living conditions are more 1930s depression: a muddy Galway caravan site, each wagon stacked with relatives clinging on to dignity, no hot water. And outside the ring Francis is a shy charmer, with an innocent smile. If I recommended that you saw Southpaw, it would be just for Francis. His material's so good. He is a star. But then again, this is boxing. It's the least you expect. It's not the criteria.

Unfortunately, all the rest - the film-making part - is bad, oh, bad. The director, a Mr Liam McGrath, gets sidetracked by his sub-theme, that Francis's rise to brief Atlanta fame shattered "traveller" stereotypes and was good for everyone, including Francis and his folks. Well, this may be an admirable idea, but as McGrath well knows- but does not include in the film, even as a written postscript - it is particularly inappropriate in Francis's case.

About two-thirds through, just as the pathos should be kicking in, you realise that the film-makers don't even know the story. And if you don't know the story, how can you even attempt to get down to the meat? Instead, you realise they want to make a nice bitter-sweet but ultimately happy end. There's a big white flower-strewn traveller's wedding in London, and then after a bit the screen goes black except for some written information, to bring us up to date, which says that Francis is happily back in training and gunning for gold in Sydney.

Let me say what actually happened. The publicity Francis Barrett received in Atlanta seriously offended the macho wing of Ireland's traveller community. To them, it's bare-knuckle fighting that's the thing. Francis was invited to prove himself but he refused. This was taken as cowardice. Finally, last year, his father agreed to take Francis to a meet with the traveller honchos where they could explain their reasons. There they were jumped and stabbed, though both have recovered. I asked Southpaw's PR company about this and was told: "Liam is saving it for the sequel."

Sequel, eh? Well, I'm sorry Liam but you blew it. You had the real story but you censored it for the sake of your happy superficial one.

As for sequels, the truth doesn't wait. In boxing, it moves fast. And by the way, I hope Downtown Pictures paid its star. Did they? I'd just like to know.

Anyway, it's Francis I'm more worried about. In these Prince Naz. days, his honest lack of showmanship could make him an antidotal showman. But from Southpaw it's clear Francis is still fixed on glory and also guilt - how he let his fans down in Atlanta and how he's going to make it up to them. Well, that too is noble but in his sphere it's also damaging and naive. The boxing game gets almost everyone in the end - even Ali - and the one thing you can't afford is naivety.

It may be innocence-shattering but someone really should tell Francis the story; and that actually a few have got out solvent and in tact, by throwing off their ego and their boxing-addiction and walking away young enough for the punches to leave only slight imprints.

It's what Eddie says to Toro Moreno about the fans: "Have you seen their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks to see a man get killed. To hell with them. Think of yourself. Take your money and get out of this rotten business."

"Southpaw" is released in selected cinemas from March 17. Jonathan Rendall's book, "This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own - a journey to the end of boxing", is published by Faber and Faber, price pounds 6.99.