In these hours after Nelson Mandela’s passing, in the course of various tributes and retrospectives (especially those that delve into his belief in the power of sport to heal on a mass level), his keen, life-long interest in boxing has again come to light. A boxer from his youth, Mandela would spar during his down time all through his law career political campaigns and during his 27-year prison stint on Robben Island. He had cited Joe Louis as one of his primary inspirations, and in turn word of his travails over the years influenced the worldwide boxing community. Upon his release in 1991 to help bring South Africa’s Apartheid system to an end, a steady stream of champions strove to meet one of their own: Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, do name but a few.
So we have a special recommendation of Boxer, aka Ripped-off (1972 — An unfortunate choice of titles for internet search purposes, as the film gets buried under a plethora of prank videos, but persistence is rewarded). Robert Blake takes on the title role with panache in his first film in three years, after In Cold Blood (1968) and Tell Them Willy Boy Is Here (1969) had completed his re-branding from Our Gang child star. His boxing scenes here are a little more Davy Jones in Head (1968) rather than Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976) — although the groovy, propulsive soundtrack by Carlos Pes is more than worthy of either of the other films.
Outside of the ring, Blake is well on his way towards his tough-guy Baretta television persona as ex-con Vietnam vet Teddy ‘Cherokee’ Wilcox, bobbing and weaving his way through crooked friends and handlers, police investigations and romantic interests. These are played by the likes of Orazio Orlando (Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton the Railroad Baron in Once Upon A Time In The West), Ernest Borgnine (in full Poseidon Adventure mode) and Catherine Spaak (fresh off Dario Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tails).
The wild card in the story, and the film itself, is Tomás Milián as The Stranger, a hard-edged hippy hitman. Already turning around the time of this film, the Cuban-born Actors Studio alum had performed Cocteau and starred in numerous popular Italian dramas and second generation Spaghetti Westerns where he was known for his knowledge of Roman slang. Later Milián would also make distinctive appearances in American film and television productions such as Miami Vice, JFK, and Traffic, and is still working today. If one tries too hard one might think this film is shot in Spaghetti Western country in southern Spain, or if not, up towards the Grapevine north of Hollywood, but it is actually shot in Albuquerque and its high and dry environs. One could wonder if Mandela ever watched this film, and what he may have thought.
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