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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Review of Smash Hit

Smash Hit: Race, Crime, and Culture in Boxing Films
By David Curcio
Armin Lear Press, 2023

In Smash Hit, David Curcio expertly plays the roles of film critic, boxing historian, and cultural commentator. His immense knowledge of film, boxing, and American culture coupled with the way he weaves them all together in almost every one of the twenty chapters (each about one film) is an astonishing achievement. While this book would fit comfortably in a college or graduate level curriculum, it can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of cinema or boxing.

Of the five movies discussed that I've seen (it should be noted I'm the antithesis of a cinephile), Curcio provides perfect analysis for four of them. Not only do I agree with his interpretations of those films, but they go beyond what I had considered. The other fifteen chapters are just as informative, and the writing is excellent.

The chapter on Rocky III is the only one in which I disagree with Curcio's view.  He writes, "Adrian is relegated to an ancillary character, once again struck dumb and keeping the film firmly rooted in the male realm." But this ignores the scene on the beach where Adrian delivers a fiery speech to reignite Rocky's passion for boxing after he has decided to quit the sport. It's the moment Adrian breaks out of her shell and forces Rocky to face the harsh truth of his fear. "How did you get to be so strong?" Rocky asks her when the shouting is done. "I live with a fighter," Adrian's replies. Overly ambitious, the context provided in the Rocky III chapter doesn't flow as seamlessly as in all the others. Instead, it reads more like a series of tangential asides.

The only other section that isn't top notch is about Gentleman Jim and only because of a few minor factual errors, mostly involving dates, such as Jim Corbett's career being placed in the 1880s instead of the 1890s (dates for Ali-Frazier I & Lewis-Tyson also have typos). In that chapter, Curcio discusses a Corbett foe, Joe Choynski, one of many Jewish boxers, actors, and characters covered.

Tons of Jewish history is present here. Curcio delves into the story of actor John Garfield and other Jews who were blacklisted or targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Edward G, Robinson is just another of the many Jewish actors mentioned. There are great anecdotes such as when Mushy Callahan doubled for Errol Flynn during the boxing scenes in Gentleman Jim. Barney Ross is the subject of a couple of the movies covered. So is Max Baer. And who could forget Rocky's trainer Mickey Goldmill? Those are just some of the Jews featured in these pages.

In Smash Hit, Curcio shows he is a writer of the highest quality. There is no one better suited to cover the blend of boxing and film and, any disagreements aside, the book is executed brilliantly. Whether or not you've seen any of the movies featured in Smash Hit, it's definitely worth reading.

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