Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher  Review: Too Less Life in a Film Portraying Life of a Man
While watching Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher, it occurred to me that though there are more popular sports in the world than boxing, such as soccer, cricket, basket, and field hockey, in terms of viewership as well as the scale of the industry, boxing has provided more fodder to filmmakers. Perhaps boxing has a primal essence that allows it to become a close allegory for humankind’s struggle for survival within the confines of discipline, societal regulations, and culture. The evolution of the sport itself allegorizes evolution, starting from man’s engagement in the act for survival and ending in the current era when the act is the same but implications have changed; the act of boxing has become the art of boxing.
Prizefighter: The Life of Jem Belcher is about the life of Jem Belcher, a fact that is not lost on anyone. As a biographical drama, Prizefighter is a standard underdog story, their emergence as a champion, their downfall due to negligence, and their ascent back to glory after having learned the better of life. But since this is not exactly a fictional tale, we must consider that reality only inspires fiction. James “Jem” Belcher was a bare-knuckle prizefighter and champion of England from 1800-1805. He came from a humble background and went on to become the youngest boxing champion. His career suffered a setback due to an eye injury, and his indulgences took a toll on his health and performance as a boxer. He came back to challenge the reigning champion Henry “The Game Chicken” Pearce and etched his name in the annals of history. Unfortunately, his film will not be remembered as a fine example of narrating a man’s life.
The most puzzling aspect of Prizefighter is Russell Crowe’s appearance as Jem’s grandfather Jack Slack, an appearance not worth noting. It is so brief, dull and almost inconsequential to the bigger picture that Russell Crowe only gets registered due to our familiarity with him. It could be possible that his name is there to attach some star weight to the film and catalyze its reception. Because otherwise, Prizefighter has no USP. My argument is not driven by the idea of the essentiality of popular stars for the popularization of a film. Several factors come into play to decide the degree of popularity of a film. My argument is that despite being a film on a long-time boxing champion from that early era, its promotions were only limited, and Russell Crowe was a major element. Marketing mechanics aside, Prizefighter offers nothing interesting to win our intrigue and contribute to our wellbeing.
The screenplay is an ordinary linear flow of life events, none of which actually delve deep into the crises humans can experience through a tumultuous life. Reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s classic Raging Bull, which is as much about boxing as it is about the man. Raging Bull is one of the greatest biographical films in my books, not because of the accuracy of events but of culture. It is an ethnofictional sketch through underplayed visuals for greater emphasis on human interactions within a community and the ring. Raging Bull rests on performances and Scorsese’s empathetic direction that makes the film appear like his attempt at understanding his subject.
All honest biopics that I have seen and managed to like are those in which filmmakers try to understand their subjects through and within the film rather than positioning themselves as restorers of tales who have already understood the subject(s) and are now trying to make others understand. As an audience, I understand and manage to connect personally with a character when the film itself is an act of understanding and not a report of what was understood in an erstwhile process. In Prizefighter, the aforementioned is precisely what underwhelmed me, making it less challenging to follow but also less exciting to sit through.
The technicalities do not help enhance the experience at all. The cinematography is overwhelmed by a visual filter making everything shimmer. The film is edited to compress all important events; surprisingly, a few montage sequences look haphazard. The only enjoyable moment I could experience comes in the climax sequence, which becomes unconventional by virtue.
Prizefighter is not a recommendation unless you are looking specifically for films on boxers or are fascinated to know some parts of Jem Belcher.