Body and Soul (1981)
"Written by Leon Isaac Kennedy. Suggested by the Original Screenplay by Abraham Polonsky." It's a wonder Body and Soul didn't turn out worse. Hot off the niche success of playing "Too Sweet" in Jamaa Fanaka's first Penitentiary, Kennedy somehow parlayed his marginal triumph (aided and abetted by schlock merchants supreme Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus), and remade Polonsky's solid boxing yarn with a mostly African-American cast and crew a great idea given the fact that most entries in the genre continued at the time to focus on Caucasian fighters (e.g. Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Champ). Though Kennedy gets plenty of points for his entrepreneurial gusto, he's to be condemned for his unabashed nepotism in casting his wife, Jayne Kennedy, as the film's love interest. The first black Miss Ohio, Jayne Kennedy certainly did not want for attractiveness, but, oh, could she have spared some of it to trade up for a little on-screen talent. She's an absolute cipher in her co-starring role as Julie Winters, a celebrity journalist who strikes up a romance with "Leon the Lover," a welterweight phenom with the speed, power, and mouth of a Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. Leon may be deadly in the ring he's bestowed with a Golden Gloves title at the film's outset but his mother wants him to finish med school and become a doctor. Leon, however, much to his mother's incensed chagrin, is forced into the unforgiving world of prizefighting when his kid sister is laid low by an acute case of sickle cell anemia. Figuring he can contend for the title for a few years and take down lucrative purses in the process, it's Leon's hope that he'll be able to get his sister top-dollar care at an elite hospital. It's the big heart that lurks beneath the blustery, womanizing façade, and, after a while, it's sufficient to win the affections of the savvy Ms. Winters. But, as is always the case in boxing, with great success comes even greater temptation, and it's dangled in all its salacious glory by a corrupt impresario known only as "Big Man" (Peter Lawford). Living up to his namesake, Leon submits to these spoils of war without compunction, as does his faithful manager Charles (Perry Lang), who develops a taste for freebase that eventually warps his mind and books him a room in the loony bin. With "Big Man" now calling the tune, Leon goes further astray, losing sight of why he started fighting in the first place, and, subsequently, wrecking his relationship with Julie. Utilizing without remorse every boxing film cliché at its disposal, Body and Soul distinguishes itself mostly through its comic book atmosphere: Leon's opponents rarely have real names they're known only through such unoriginal nicknames as "Iceman" or "The St. Louis Assassin" while the fights are garishly unrealistic, particularly the final bout against "Mad Man" Santiago, in which the aptly named challenger winds up grappling with Leon on the canvas after having headbutted him bloody without interference from the referee (Santiago also bites off Leon's ear, which was at least semi-unrealistic until Mike Tyson went a-chompin' during his 1997 rematch with Evander Holyfield). This film would be a lot easier to dismiss had Muhammad Ali not deigned to grace the project with what winds up being more than a mere cameo. Though the Parkinson's was getting rapidly more debilitating at the time, the GOAT is still fairly lucid here, which only serves to remind the viewer what a remarkable personality the world has been deprived of. Audiences would have to wait another six years before a spiritual rebirth would permanently deprive them of Leon Isaac Kennedy, the actor. The film's only real highlight finds "Mad Man" Santiago angrily chucking an infant into the dirt after it urinates on his lap. MGM presents Body and Soul in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with good monaural Dolby Digital audio. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.