Cannon Film Distributors
Directed by George Bowers
Produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan
Written by Leon Isaac Kennedy
Based on the 1947 United Artists film “Body and Soul” directed by Robert Rossen and written by Abraham Polonsky
There’s a scene in the movie “Creed” where Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has agreed to train the son of his best frenemy, the late Apollo Creed to be a boxer. Rocky takes the young man (Michael B. Jordan) and turns him to face a mirror. Rocky points at the young man’s reflection and says; “There’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face.”
There’s a whole lot of truth in that because most boxing movies (well, the better ones anyway) are actually about a man overcoming his inner conflicts and desires to be a better human being. The boxer he faces in The Big Fight At The End is just a stand-in for his own emotional/psychological conflicts as well as any criminal corruption he’s tempted with along the road to becoming The Champ. And maybe that’s the true appeal of boxing movies…that at the end it comes down to one man stepping into a ring to fight another man, laying it all on the line. Maybe he’s doing it for glory. Maybe he’s doing it for family. Maybe he’s doing it to prove something to himself. But when it’s all done either he’s standing up, arms raised in triumph or he’s flat on his back with cartoon birdies tweeting above his head. Either way, it’s a story with a solid resolution. By the end of the story we know who’s won and who’s lost. I have to admit that as much as I love boxing movies I never really understood the structure of how a boxing story is told until I told one myself.
(Gratuitous Self-Promotion Alert: Fight Card: Brooklyn Beatdown by Derrick Ferguson writing as Jack Tunney is available from Amazon HERE. We now return you to your regularly scheduled movie review already in progress)
I’ve never seen the 1947 “Body and Soul” that the movie we’re going to talk about is based on but it’s my understanding that it’s the first really great boxing movie. After having seen this movie I’m eager to see the original, which stars John Garfield. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a seriously different film from this one since African-Americans dominated the sport of boxing in 1981 so what we’ve got here due to it’s predominantly black cast fits comfortably in the Blaxploitation genre as well.
The star of BODY AND SOUL, Leon Isaac Kennedy was already familiar with making boxing movies thanks to the surprise hit of 1979, “Penitentiary” a boxing movie set in prison that is definitely a boxing movie you oughta see. Especially since it’s a better movie than this one. He’s Leon Johnson in this one. Although his mother (Kim Hamilton) has worked hard to see to it that Leon has a education and a chance to go to medical school and become a doctor, Leon turns his back on all that. His little sister Kelly (Nikki Swasey) has sickle cell anemia and needs medical treatments now. Leon is a natural fighter and becomes a professional boxer to get money to pay his sister’s medical bills, managed by his best friend Charles (Perry Lang). He’s mentored by none other than The Greatest Himself, Muhammad Ali (Muhammad Ali) who turns Leon over to be trained by Frankie (Michael V. Gazzo. Remember him from “Godfather Part II?”)
Leon is indeed a success as a boxer but he’s impatient to move up faster and make more money, win bigger purses. So he hits on a gimmick to get more attention from boxing fans and the press and becomes ‘Leon The Lover.’ He hands out roses to the ladies before every fight and is most generous with his kisses. He’d really like to be kissing with sports reporter Julie Winters (Jayne Kennedy who was married to Leon Isaac at the time they made this movie) but she’s wary of getting too involved with him. She’s been around and knows how boxers can get sucked into the dark side of the boxing game.
You know what comes next, don’t you? Leon gets hooked up with Tony (Gilbert Lewis) and his boss The Big Man (Peter Lawford) who quickly pinpoint the weaknesses of Leon (women) and Charles (drugs) and quickly ensnares them in a downward spiral of moral corruption which leads to Charles suffering a near fatal drug overdose while driving a serious wedge between Leon and Julie.
Although to be totally honest, if a crooked boxing promoter were tempting me with Azizi Johari (who plays a character named…I kid thee not…Pussy Willow) I could see where that downward spiral might not be such a bad thing.
In order to redeem himself and regain the love and respect of his friends and family, Leon has to dig down deep inside himself and find the man he really is to be able to step into the ring with Ricardo (Al Denavo) a damn near unstoppable combination of near psychotic rage and inexhaustible strength and endurance. Can Leon do it? Can he go the distance and beat Ricardo? Can he win back the love of Julie and the respect of his mother and sister?
If I had to point a finger at the weakness in this movie it would have to be the screenplay. Kennedy himself is a charismatic actor but he’s not a writer and the story is as predictable as a dozen other boxing movies but at least most of those had memorable, quirky characters in them. Most of the characters in here are quite bland and even The Big Man himself doesn’t seem very threatening. At least he never does anything to make you think for a minute that he actually presents a serious threat to Leon or his ambitions.
Perry Lang wins the Who The Hell Let Him In This Movie? Award for BODY AND SOUL. He has a scene where he’s carted away after his near-overdose in a straitjacket that is supposed to be heartbreaking but is just hilarious. Despite the fact that they’re married, Leon Isaac and Jayne really don’t have a lot of chemistry on screen. Hell, Kennedy has more chemistry with the actresses who play hookers he has assignations with (Azizi Johari, Rosanne Katon and Ola Ray) than with Jayne. And isn’t it kinda hypocritical that in his sex scenes with the hookers, they’re nude but in his big love scene with Jayne/Julie the only bare things we see of her is her arms?
But don’t let me dissuade you from seeing BODY AND SOUL. I appreciate a good bad movie as much as any of you and BODY AND SOUL is certainly that. It’s trashy escapism that’s fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon. Take my advice and get hold of the three “Penitentiary” movies as well and make it a Leon Isaac Kennedy afternoon. You won’t be disappointed.