I am not, by any definition, “competitive.” I have spent most of my peaceful, womb-like, existence scrupulously avoiding any social encounter or situation which might engender any hint of confrontation or competition. Naturally, this means that I avoid all sports. Indeed, in our civilized age, they seem to represent the last refuge of modern-day Gauls, barbarous hordes covered in Tap Out garments and scar tissue, drunk on testosterone and Mountain Dew. No thanks! That said, I do thoroughly enjoy a good sports movie from the sanctuary of my chesterfield. Whether it’s Angels in the Outfield, M.V.P.: Most Valuable Primate, or even Space Jam, I’ve lost track of how many times an incredible sports movie has absolutely affirmed the hell out of my life. Rudy. Remember the Titans. D2 : The Mighty Ducks. Damn. Sports movies.
Anyway, nobody asked me, but here’s my countdown of the top five sports movies of all-time.
5. Rocky II (1979)
In an increasingly complex world, I often admire sports for their refreshingly adolescent world view. Bad guys are bad. Good guys are good. All have intensely ripped musculature. Contests, often violent, settle everything definitively. Perhaps no single sports movie better encapsulates this appeal than Rocky II. In it, Rocky, the “good guy,” is despondent over the outcome of his last punching contest with Apollo Creed, the “bad guy,” in which he was punched more often than he was able to punch back. He eventually learns that this problem, like any other, can be overcome by simply punching more. Rocky then becomes determined to punch Apollo Creed again. He eventually does. Many times. Our hope is renewed. Thank you, sports movie.
4. Rocky IV (1985)
An example of avant-garde cinema at its most willfully experimental, Rocky IV deconstructs the traditional three-act narrative structure. There is a first act, in which Rocky’s friend is killed to death by Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, yet another sports movie “bad guy” as huge and solid as a Hutterite barn. Later, there is an ostensible third act, in which Rocky avenges this. But there is no second act in between. Instead, there is an extended training montage in which Rocky chops logs and lifts large wagons filled with people against rugged Americana landscapes, while the cyborgian Drago punches machines and injects steroids in a hi-tech Soviet lab. I suppose the sequence and, moreover, the entire film, is some kind of deft Cold War-era geopolitical polemic. Indeed, only four short years after Rocky conquered Drago, the real Soviet Union collapsed and it’s hard not to see a causal connection.
3. Rocky (1976)
Where have the all chest bumps gone? All the non-ironic high fives? Alas, the dull ebb of everyday life affords us precious few opportunities for real glory anymore. Fortunately, sports films like Rocky remind us of the sheer, unabashed, joy of running through the streets in slow motion. They let us know that it’s okay to emit sharp guttural yells in almost any situation. They show us precisely how to raise our hands in the air in triumph, and how to be a champion in an age without champions.
- Tie: Rocky III (1982) and No Holds Barred (1989)
If you enjoy movies seemingly written by a committee of 12-year old boys, then Rocky III is probably your Citizen Kane. Rocky spends 99 per cent of the movie’s running time fist-fighting fantasy adversaries like Mr. T. and Hulk Hogan. Unfortunately, to the dismay of “little Hulksters” everywhere, Hogan is but a tertiary character here. For their exacting sensibilities, I recommend supplementing Rocky III with pro wrestling epic No Hold Barred, in which Hulkamania spends two full hours “runnin’ wild” with impunity.
1. Rocky V (1990)
The most moving of all sports films, Rocky V sees our aging, battered hero suffering from cumulative brain damage, yet this condition only seems to further inspire Rocky’s passions — those of pointless violence and suddenly appearing to be drunk. His irrepressible joie-de-vivre signals perhaps the greatest appeal of sports movies. Yes, in their steadfast refusal to ruminate or think deeply, sports movies evoke the simple non-philosophy of Conan the Barbarian (as articulated in the 1934 Weird Tales story “Queen of the Black Coast”) — “Let philosophers and assholes brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, I play sports and am content.” Well, I’ve taken a couple liberties with the quote, but its pith endures.