There's just something brutally beautiful about the sight of two peak athletes bashing seven shades of s**t out of each other with grace and technique- a fair distance from the airborne antics of prima-donna footballers or the snide underhand punches of rugby boys.
As such, the story of the Greatest Fight of all Time is far from unfamiliar- a whirl-wind build-up featuring some unforgivable treachery and bigotry by one of Americas true Greats; a tremendous fight bogged down in near-Apocalyptic heat; and a result that will rock the boxing world well beyond the time when the final bell rings on Frazier and Ali's iconic lives.
So, it was with childish enthusiasm that I embarked on THRILLA IN MANILA (slightly disappointing they didnt stick to the original Thrilla in Manila), knowing that the subject matter at the very least was worth the cover-price. What I expected was an insightful look at the fight, ostensibly from a sporting viewpoint, especially filling the gap of Fraziers experience- but what I got was a documentary that concentrated more on the fight as a symptom of its cultural moment, and as a reflection of wider civil rights concerns.
Now I'm not daft enough to have imaged that THRILLA would ignore the wider issue of racial tension in 1970s America, but the brutal emphasis on some of the aspects in the run-up to the fight took me slightly aback. I knew that Ali was affiliated with, and bankrolled by the Nation of Islam, and I had a fair idea of some of the comments he had aimed at his one-time friend Joe Frazier, but again I was shocked by the extent.
The fight is presented as an allegory, Frazier representing white conservative America, backed by a white corporation- Cloverlay- and brutally lambasted for it by his opponent who represented anyone who was black, liberal, young, against Viet Nam, and for civil rights.
For all intents and purposes, Frazier was the enemy of progress- one of them in Ali's words- his apparent willingness to make himself inferior to white men at the root of most of Ali's despicable bigotry. But there is something in the way it is all presented that leaves me feeling somewhat unfulfilled- there is no answer from Ali, or his people, to the case against him- perhaps understandable considering his health- which detracts from the debate.
The cumulative effect of slur after slur on Ali: womaniser, hypocrite, racist, betrayer of his close friend who had backed him through his wilderness following Vietnam snub is dampened by their frequency, and made slightly insincere by the lack of his voice to respond. The footage backs it up, of course- there is no doubt that Ali was guilty- but it all becomes slightly tedious. In one poorly measured sequence, the run-up to the fight, with Frazier training, and Ali brash and cocky, lounging on a chez-long talking up his prospects, plays out a bit too much like the Ivan Drago/Rocky Balboa fight build-up.
The fight sequences themselves are excellent, though, with a near round by round evaluation that was enough to satisfy the pugilist spirit within me, especially when united with the personal testimonies of certain key figures within both circles. But it is not the focus upon the fight, or even the shocking depiction of Mohammed Ali that lasts after the credits roll- it is the image of Joe Frazier, his broken body telling the tale of his career, sitting in his gym, in seemingly abject poverty watching the fight on a small TV. Frazier's face is made almost grotesque thanks to the familiar modern photographic style- the lens pushed so far up into it as to be almost uncomfortable. His dead-eye stare, fixed on the footage of the fight, is unbearably heart-breaking.
While WHEN WE WERE KINGS, that other seminal documentary concerning Ali, is all about the pomp and circumstance of boxing, THRILLA IN MANILA is a document of the wider cultural and humanist concerns. The film asks us to consider the cost of the fight specifically and boxing generally and the despicable way America treats some of its sporting heroes; the few are afforded special treatment, the many are largely forgotten.
Not only that it shows the price and destructive effect of obsession- Ali's conduct in the build-up to the fight invoked a blood feud with Frazier, which Frazier believes has now come to bite him in the butt- alluding to Ali's degeneration thanks to Parkinsons. God marks you down, so says the former friend of Americas greatest boxing icon.
Despite my love of the sport, THIRILLA IN MANILLA is a pretty terrible indictment on the result of a career in boxing- Ali's condition is of course mentioned, but it is in the portrayal of Joe Frazier, battered and forgotten in his gym, and living with the fact that his home town chose to erect a statue of Rocky Balboa rather than a tribute to his own achievements, that really resonates.
While Will Smith's ALI is a (somewhat sweetened) eulogy for Mohammed Ali's career and life, Thrilla is obviously a painful but timely lamentation for the other man in Manila. And you have to wonder whether this is what director John Dower attempted to achieve; redressing the balance and trying to stem the pro-Ali bias, giving Frazier back the dignity that Ali robbed him of before the first bell in Manila, or that America has chosen to since ignore.
To redress balance of bias of the fight itself, which favoured Ali even financially, presenting Frazier as the down-trodden, cast-aside victim, in stark contrast to Ali's adored status as humanitarian icon and sporting god. In all honesty, on that front at least, I cant help but feel like the documentary fails- whether it is due to the almost-pantomime way that Ali is vilified throughout, without suitable riposte, or the quasi-grotesque manner in which Frazier comes across on screen, the overall resolution is one of melancholy and not, sadly, of triumph.
Extras: Somewhat limited, but then there is only so much you can do with a documentary so recently screened- the collection of extra footage, particularly Frazier's reflections on the ROCKY films are insightful, and do slightly enrich the effect of the film itself.
But there isn't anything massively affecting, and they seem to just be there to appease those fans, like myself who crave a little bit extra for their sterling.
THRILLA IN MANILLA is priced £11.98 at Amazon.