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BOXING GYM (Photo: KO Films/Zipporah Films)

Edited, Produced & Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Released by Zipporah Films
USA. 91 min. Not Rated

Boxing Gym has none of the boxing movie stereotypes. Thats probably because premier fly-on-the-wall documentarian Frederick Wiseman has found in Austin, Texas, a very unusual boxing gym.

Like so many athletic clubs seen over the decades in cinema’s fascination with boxers, Lord’s Gym was established by a former professional pugilist and has been the home for several national and Texas champions. For over 20 years, Richard Lord has not just welcomed guys who want to be contenders, but old and young men and women, boys and girls, blacks, whites, and Latinos, from many backgrounds and reasons for wanting to spend hours exercising, perspiring, jabbing at big and small bags, bashing balls, and sparring.

The genial Lord, with a thin scraggly braid down his back, sizes up each newbie’s needs while he explains the simple rules and basic fees for annual membership. In addition to the immigrants training to go pro, there are parents who hope their kids will learn to fend off school yard bullies, mothers who want to get back in shape after giving birth (and bring their newborns with them), girls jumping rope in pink sweat suits, weekend warriors taking a fantasy break from their office cubicles (including an Internet mogul), and soldiers from a nearby base on their way to and from deployments. No preening gym rats or steroid-enhanced bodybuilders in sight.

Seeming to spend equal time coaching the amateurs and those hoping to go pro, Lord sets the tone that fosters a surprising amount of friendly interactions among these very different people, who probably wouldn’t talk to each other outside the gym. The habitués offer each other a lot of advice and encouragement, and during breaks they rue past mistakes and reflect on their hopes. The place provides for a kind of physical therapy, a respite from the stress in their lives.

Among Wiseman’s 36 vérité documentaries have been several that have dealt with the eruption and consequences of violence, such as Law and Order (1969) and Domestic Violence (2001). But it seems almost counterintuitive from the usual image of boxing that safety is of the utmost consideration here, including carefully supervised bouts between helmeted, protected sparring partners. The lack of violence is emphasized. A shocked discussion reacting to the news of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings jars the congenial atmosphere.

The transmission of physical experience from older members to younger ones recalls Wiseman’s La Danse, released last year, which he shot in between hanging around this gym—minus the pointed criticisms. But where the bodies in that film were working toward a performance finale, this documentary confounds every routine boxing film by not heading towards the Big Fight.

The auditory ambiance that the microphones pick up is also important. The rhythmic pulse of punching bags, panting lungs and pounding feet (in a lot of close-ups), repetitive drills, and the constant 30-second countdown bell at the ring are like nature sounds in an unusual ecological niche, and may have more of an impact when heard in a theater before its broadcast on PBS. Nora Lee Mandel
November 5 2010



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