Monday, January 2, 2012

Bawdy and Slow: "Body and Soul" (1981)

Inspired by the original 1940's film, Leon Isaac Kennedy both pens and stars in this deeply flawed remake.

Leon plays Leon, a cocky amateur boxer. His angry mother (Kim Hamilton) wants him to continue his medical studies at college, but his little sister (Nikki Swasey) is diagnosed with sickle cell disease. Leon decides to cash in on his boxing talent, morphing into Leon the Lover, much to the chagrin of his trainer (Michael V. Gazzo, doing his best Burgess Meredith impression) and fragile hanger-on/manager Charles (a terrible Perry Lang).

Leon's success also crosses over into his love life as he takes up with sports reporter Julie (underrated beauty Jayne Kennedy). The villainous Big Man (Peter Lawford) is introduced, and Leon falls in with the shady character, losing his girlfriend and Charles (in a laughable near-fatal drug overdose scene). As with most boxing films, the climax involves a big fight, where Leon takes on the seemingly indestructible Ricardo (Al Denavo).

Kennedy's screenplay portrays Leon as a jerk right off the bat, and I had trouble liking him. His "transformation" into Leon the Lover is merely physical, and Kennedy cannot seem to garner any sympathy until his involvement with Big Man. Leon's canoodling with awesomely hot hookers, when he has Julie waiting for him, is a huge foreshadowing to some infamous athletes today.

Director Bowers' tone in many key scenes is also wrong. Leon's medical school ambitions are touched on but not explored, failing to offer the viewer and Leon any alternative to the easy money and fame. Poor Swasey gets planted in a wheelchair and must tear up on cue, her character eye-rollingly annoying. While Ricardo is a first-class dirty fighter, his opening scene is so over-the-top (he throws a child!), he turns into a buffoonish character with little menace. You can add two training montages and Muhammad Ali poorly portraying himself to the mix.

The film's greatest strength is its fight sequences. Choreographer Bob Minor does an excellent job, backed by effective sound effects editing and makeup. Unfortunately, once Kennedy finally finds his way, the viewer has given up and waits for the inevitable.

This is not the worst film the Cannon Group put out in the 1980's (it may actually be one of the strongest), but in this era of sequels, reboots, franchises, and reimaginings, you sometimes cannot beat the original. No split decision here. (* *) out of five stars.