Judge Clark Douglas would rather get phantom punched than sit through this film again.
Before Tyson, there was Liston.
Shortly before writing this review, I had the opportunity to review The Blind Side, which is a good demonstration of how to make an effective formula sports drama. Alas, Phantom Punch is an equally good demonstration of how not to make a formula sports drama. This is a tedious and often laughably clichéd film, frequently demonstrating so little originality and so much amateurish technique that it begins to feel like a Saturday Night Live parody of itself.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the source material, as the life of boxer Sonny Liston was a troubled yet fascinating one full of plenty of drama ripe for cinematic exploration (or at least exploitation). Even so, the filmmakers have taken the story of his life and somehow managed to make it feel like little more than an awkward mash-up of every boxing movie ever made. The film is directed by Robert Townsend, once such a promising director and actor whose early films included the likes of Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats. That he is responsible for dreck like this is a very sad thing indeed.
The film opens with a scene of Liston (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) in prison. If you'll permit me, let's take a moment to analyze this scene. There's a shot of Liston behind bars. Then another shot, from a different angle. Then a shot of Liston leaning his head against the walls. Then another shot of Liston behind bars, breaking into a fit of rage. He screams, knocking things over and banging his fists against the walls, offering a distinct echo of Raging Bull. A priest enters the room, puts his arms around Liston, and dramatically declares (in a super-thick and super-fake southern accent), "Gon' be okay. Gon' be okay." Intense string music plays on the soundtrack. Immediately after this, we get a handful of prison scenes that depict Liston as a man contentedly and quietly biding his time. We can't help but wonder what the purpose of that opening scene was, other than to demonstrate that Liston didn't like being in prison and maybe had some anger issues. Surely there will be some further explanation as to the details of his rage in that scene? Nope. It turns out that it's just an incredibly melodramatic moment that overplays its hand.
That happens an awful lot in the movie, as one dramatic moment after another attempts to generate serious drama out of thin air. The film has no sense of how to set up a moment, simply lurching into "big scenes" without any effort put into building up to them or offering a reason for us to care about them. The film seems completely oblivious to how ineffective these moments are, as the score by composer Stephen James Taylor treats each dramatic turn as if it were the most important event in the history of mankind (a tactic which only makes these scenes even less effective).
If you're a fan of montages, you're in luck because there are plenty to be found in Phantom Punch. The training montage, the romantic montage, the prison montage, the sex with the mistress montage, the fun times with friends montage and on and on and on. When the film isn't indulging in montages, it's browsing through a series of subplots that we feel like we've witnessed hundreds of times before (maybe we have). There are the moments in which mobsters ask Sonny to take a dive, the scenes in which he has to endure racial epithets being thrown at him by one-dimensional rednecks, and the superficial scenes depicting his marriage problems. Even the boxing sequences are staged in an ineffective manner.
Interestingly enough, the real-life Liston was 30 when he began his professional boxing career and 38 when he passed away. So why did the filmmakers cast Ving Rhames in the part, given that he's 50 years old and looks like he could be even older? Maybe because he was available and could bring a bit of star power to a low-budget production. I can't really complain, as Rhames is the best thing about the film (though the role is poorly written, he plays it about as well as he can under the circumstances). Acting is pretty pathetic everywhere else, as the likes of Nick Turturro (World Trade Center), Stacey Dash (View From the Top), and David Proval (Balls of Fury) struggle to make their characters rise above the level of cardboard.
The DVD transfer is perfectly fine, though there's a bit of bleeding during scenes featuring lots of bright red. Blacks are deep enough, shading is solid and detail is fine. The film's obnoxious tendency to employ lots of wearisome visual flourishes (fading to black-and-white, offering desaturated flashbacks in slow motion) make the film a bit unappealing visually at times. Audio is on the weaker side, as the track is front-heavy and the boxing sequences don't land much of a punch (bad pun intended). The disc is bare bones, offering no supplements of any sort.
Perhaps someday someone will make a good film based on the life of Sonny Liston. I hope so, because his story deserves something vastly better than Phantom Punch. Avoid this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Screen Media Films
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