By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Idolized by his son.
Billy (Jon Voight) is a former boxer whose been out of the ring for 7 years. Now at age 37 he works as a horse trainer. His 8-year-old son T.J. (Ricky Schroder) idolizes him and refers to his as ‘The Champ’ instead of dad. Billy though suffers from many inner demons including his perpetual drinking and gambling as well as not making enough money to sufficiently support either himself, or his son. Nonetheless he continues to go out gambling whenever given the chance and he manages to win enough money to buy his son a horse, which they name She’s a Lady. They enter Lady into a race where T.J. meets Annie (Faye Dunaway). Unbeknownst to T.J. Annie is his mother whom she gave up at birth, but now that she’s married to a wealthy man (Arthur Hill) she wants to have custody. Billy refuses to allow it, but when he loses the horse because of a gambling debt and Annie gives him the money to pay it off he eventually relents and has T.J. go live with her while he’s in jail for assault. Once he’s released the father and son reunite, but Billy realizes he must make more money in order to keep him and thus decides to go back into the ring one last time despite warnings from Jackie (Jack Warden), his former manager, that to do so could be life threatening.
The film is remake of the 1931 classic with Wallace Beery playing the part of the father and Jackie Cooper as the son. Director Franco Zeffirelli remembered watching it as a child and it having a profound effect on him. Then years later while he was in his hotel room while on-location filming another feature he saw it come on television and the film again moved him in such a way that he decided he wanted to do a remake. This though wasn’t the first remake as it had already been done in 1953 as The Clown starring Red Skelton though the story had been revised without the boxing theme and the climactic event at the end doesn’t take place at a sporting event, but instead a dangerous stunt that the lead character must do during a live broadcast of a TV special.
While this one stays more faithful to the original concept it was still panned by many critics as being overly sentimental and soap opera-like. Many who were fans of the original felt this one fell far short and complained about the long running time, this one runs of full 2-hours while the older one was only 83 minutes, with the feeling that it stretched the plot out too much and at spots was too slow. Though I’ve never seen the 30’s version I found myself genuinely wrapped up in the drama and the characters.
Many at the time complained that Voight was going back to the same type of Joe Buck character that he played in Midnight Cowboy, but I disagreed. That character was genuinely stupid, but Billy isn’t he’s just down-on-his-luck and suffering from basic human frailties, which made his situation far more compelling.
Schroder is an absolute jewel. He got the part after beating out over 2,000 others and it’s easy to see why. His ability to cry on demand with real tears streaming down his face is amazing and not something other actors are able to do. He’s cute and engaging without it ever getting forced, or overdone. His presence gives the film its energy and virtually the sole reason for why it works as well as it does.
The main complaint that I did have was with Annie. She’s marvelously played by Dunaway, who’s always been one of my favorite actresses and it’s a good role for her acting style as she’s excellent at playing characters that have a bit of a cold and aloof manner while not easily able to show their soft side, but with that said I still couldn’t understand what made the character tick, or her motivations. For one thing she seemed to have nothing in common with Billy, so what brought them together in the first place was a mystery and then having her abandon the kid while she went off living her life seemed pretty extreme. In most cases it’s the father that shirks the responsibility of raising the child, but here it’s reverse, but with no clear explanation as to why. There’s a vague excuse later on that it was so she could ‘pursue her career’, but then this doesn’t explain why she now wants to get close to her son. If she was selfish back then what made her change to suddenly want to be loving and caring? She went 7 years without ever seeing the kid, and did pretty well without him, so why now must she have him? I felt there needed to be some extra context added like she had been addicted to drugs when she had TJ, which then made her deemed unfit to raise him, but now that she had kicked the habit she wanted him back, or maybe she had suffered a miscarriage with her second husband and this made her feel guilty about the child she had let get away and this motivated her to want to seek out TJ, but without any of this added information the character comes-off as transparent, unrealistic, and unrelatable.
I will agree with Leonard Maltin in his review where he states that it looks like Faye wants to go to bed with her own kid. This occurs during the scene where Ricky is on her yacht and looking off in the distance while Faye comes up behind him and begins sniffing his hair like she’s getting turned-on by him. To call this a cringey, awkward moment is an understatement and it’s unintentionally laughable. Why it was left in, or why Zeffirelli thought it would be a good idea to put in I don’t know. The movie manages to recover, but it’s a segment that is indeed ridiculous.
The boxing element is another problem as it gets introduced way too late. It gets briefly mentioned throughout the first 2 acts and there’s even a quick scene where Billy shows up at a gym, but overall it gets played-out as a side-story only to suddenly, 90-minutes in, becomes the main focus, which gives the film a very disjointed feel. Jack Warden’s character doesn’t appear at all until near the end almost like it’s a tacked-on bit that doesn’t really flow with everything else that came before. The boxing scenes are impressive and helps to effectively expose the brutality of the sport, but I felt Billy’s training and decision to enter the ring should’ve been made sooner and the boxing scenes mixed-in throughout, but either way it’s still an competent tearjerker that shouldn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Release: March 20, 1979
Runtime: 2 Hours 3 Minutes
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube