Fans of the BBC’s ’90s sketch comedy The Fast Show might recall Paul Whitehouse in a one-off skit called ‘The Long Big Punch Up‘, an action movie parody featuring two characters endlessly trading blows. There are moments – and plenty of them – when Prizefighter feels just like this. An earnest period drama about the life and times of real-life pugilist Jem Belcher, its director Daniel Graham doesn’t shy away from scenes of men relentlessly slugging it out. Like Rocky in britches.
The story proper begins in Bristol in 1789, when hard-drinking, debt-ridden, womanising bare-knuckle boxer Jack Slack (Russell Crowe) tutors his grandson Jem in the not-so-noble art of bashing seven shades out of an opponent. Jack’s daughter Mary (Jodhi May) is aghast, desperate that her boy doesn’t follow her father’s debauched path. Spoiler alert: he does.
Ten years on, Belcher (Matt Hookings, who also scripted the film) is now a trainee blacksmith. Paid a pittance, he soon finds extra coins by fighting in brutish tournaments. There, he catches the eye of Bill Warr (Ray Winstone), a seen-it-all trainer who helps refine his style in the ring. Before long, Belcher is beating men for fun (as the end credits explain, he was the youngest ever boxing champion in England) and becomes the toast of high society.
Faster than an uppercut to the chin, Belcher’s triumphs turn to disaster, although anyone hoping for a Raging Bull-style emotional arc will be sorely disappointed. Injury and jail are followed by the cliché comeback. There’s even the obligatory training montage, as Winstone’s Warr yells “now fuckin’ ’it it!” as he gets his flabby prizefighter back into shape for “the fight of the century” against champion Henry Pearce (Ricky Chaplin).
Admittedly, the star presence of Crowe and Winstone elevates Graham’s film beyond the bargain bucket. Crowe has an infectious glint in his eye while Winstone’s gruff persona fits this sweat-stained world well. Yet be it Crowe as heavyweight champ Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man, or Winstone featuring in Jawbone, alongside Johnny Harris’ punch-drunk fighter, both have been in superior boxing movies in the past. This feels like a comedown.
Hookings, whose own father is British heavyweight boxer David ‘Bomber’ Pearce, clearly knows his way around the ring, and is convincing as the provincial scrapper who discovers, at his cost, that “London’s a big fairground.” Some of the best scenes are between Belcher and Lord Rushworth (Marton Csokas). Most recently seen in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, Csokas has a riot as this arrogant, ego-driven former naval officer who takes Belcher under his wing.
There is the occasional nice detail – like the Jim Belcher figurines that go on sale when he becomes a household name. But Hookings’ screenplay lacks depth, the characters all largely one-note. It doesn’t help that Graham and his cinematographer Ben Ziryab elect to shoot in a yellowy-sepia tone, as if the actors have been slathered in melted Lurpak. By the end, after multiple rounds in the ring, you’ll be left dizzy – but also, sadly, dulled by this bruising encounter.
- Director: Daniel Graham
- Starring: Matt Hookings, Ray Winstone, Russell Crowe
- Release date: July 22 (Prime Video)