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STUDIO: Screen Media
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
The Lifetime movie version of Sonny Liston’s life.
Robert Townsend (director), Ving Rhames, Nicholas Turturro, Stacey Dash, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, David Proval
Follow Sonny Liston’s tumultuous climb to become the heavyweight champion of the world, but in the most boring way possible.
I am not in any way classifiable a “sports guy.” I don’t follow any teams or keep up with “stats” or anything of the sort. But, when it comes to films, I am definitely partial to the boxing film. I may not know much about the sport’s history beyond a cursory knowledge of notable champions, but it’s one of the few sports that translates into enjoyable cinema extremely well, for me at least. It’s too bad that Phantom Punch ends up being the weakest boxing movie I think I’ve ever seen. While there are a few moments of genuine emotion, the rest of the movie is bogged down by lackluster performances, amateur editing and a poor script.
Ving Rhames plays Sonny Liston, one of the more controversial heavyweight champions the sport has known. While I’m sure Rhames has nothing but respect for the role, he isn’t given much to do except look like he’s bottling up rage behind his sledgehammer mug. It’s too bad because after his surprisingly badass turn in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, I was kind of awaiting the second coming of the man who made Marcellus Wallace a household example of what a bitch does not look like. But in Phantom Punch, he seems to be stepping into Samuel L. Jackson’s territory of being a performer and not an actor. He has fleeting instances of sincerity (one locker room speech asking why everyone always sees him as the villain is the only part of the movie where I felt invested) but they are far too fleeting to amount to anything that carries through the whole picture.
The other actors surrounding Rhames all give portrayals ranging from facepalmingly bad to decent enough for a TV movie (which this isn’t). Nicholus Turturro is a little too stereotypical as Liston’s manager and best friend, Ceasar Novak. He almost seems a step away from devolving into a Joe Pesci caricature at any moment. The worst performance is definitely Stacey Dash as Liston’s barely seen wife, Geraldine. For the few scenes she’s present, she delivers her lines like a weeklong guest on a second-tier soap opera. It’s almost gratifying that the scriptwriters seem to forget her character even exists for the majority of the running time. David Proval plays mob boss Savino like any other Mafia stock character you’d expect: soft-spoken and falsely intimidating. The only one giving an even notable turn is Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as nightclub singer and Ceasar’s girlfriend, Farah. Maybe I should disclose my childhood infatuation with Ms. Wilson (I refuse to acknowledge that she’s a married woman) that dates back to my random discovery of Billy Madison at my local video store, and then having her fill the tanktop of Mortal Kombat’s Sonya Blade. My pubescent puppy love aside, she really does the role well, and is actually given the most conflict of any of the characters. But, she’s no Oscar contender. She does an admirable job though.
But the real killer of the movie is the way it’s constructed. The script moves along in a way that doesn’t allow any real time for reflection. It seems more interested in reaching the beats it needs to rather than examine what leads to those beats. The editing is fine except for one reoccurrence: when a scene ends, the image will transition from color to black and white and digitally slow down. It adds absolutely nothing meaningful to the visual presentation of the movie, and it happens so often that a drinking game could be made out of it. The ending of the movie happens so abruptly that I actually had to rewind the DVD because I went to the kitchen to get a drink, thinking that I had at least fifteen minutes left, but I was way off. The ending titles popped up and I was taken aback at how inefficiently the film decided to wrap things up.
I guess now is as good a time as any to make mention that this is directed by Robert Townsend, the same man that gave us such landmark films as Hollywood Shuffle and The Meteor Man. What’s strange about that connection though is that the film is practically devoid of any humor. Maybe if there had been a few bits of levity thrown about, the film would’ve been able to keep my attention more. But its blind dash through Liston’s life didn’t leave any room for any kind of laughter, good or bad.
I normally like to know as little about the subject of a bio-pic as I can when I see one. That way, I’m not constantly complaining about discrepancies between what really happened and what has been manufactured for entertainment purposes. Also, I use that as a judge of how good the movie was. If it was good, I am usually compelled to go and lookup the source material, but if it wasn’t I don’t feel the need to know anything more than what I was presented. Phantom Punch makes it seem like there is an interesting story to be told about Sonny Liston (and I’m sure most notable athletes have filmable life stories) but in the way it presented it, it left me with no desire to find out the facts behind the fiction.
The picture and sound are fine. That’s about all you can say, since the disc is devoid of anything even resembling a special feature.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars