The first episode of the eight-part “The Bronx is Burning” (2007, ESPN) opens with a dugout clash between Yankees manager Billy Martin (John Turturro) and superstar Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) and closes with a locker-room shouting match between Martin and owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt). But as we learn over the course of this deep dive into the 1977 Yankees, what played out as a ridiculous circus to casual observers was really the clash of three strong-willed men in pursuit of the common goal of a world championship.
Aside from its wonderful locations and car designs that capture the 1960s, director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” (2019) is a sober re-creation of a niche slice of history. He trusts that 24-hour racing at Le Mans and Daytona will be exciting enough to capture and hold the layperson’s attention. He pushes it with the 2-hour, 32-minute run time, but ultimately he’s right. While non-racing-fan moviegoers aren’t likely to tune in to TV coverage of the next 24-race, this sport plays tremendously well in movie form.
With Season 2 (April), which recently wrapped its free-to-all run on YouTube Premium, “Cobra Kai” has secured its spot as the best continuation of a 1980s premise (a surprisingly robust genre lately). The safe, cheesy and sometimes flat-out bad (but yes, we loved it anyway) filmmaking of the “Karate Kid” trilogy has given way to a confident, funny, epic and ultimately heart-wrenching TV series.
The 2010s are the decade when the word “canceled” became softened and pretty much any old fondly remembered thing could be brought back (for better or worse). “Cobra Kai” – Season 1 of which aired in May 2018 on YouTube Premium – may or may not have been the most surprising revival, continuing from the “Karate Kid” trilogy (1984-89). But it is surprising that it’s this good.
Making a great fictional tennis movie is a tall order. The sport is naturally cinematic and filled with personal drama, and there’s no way made-up people and events can compete with what’s really happening on the pro tours. (By contrast, in a team sport like baseball or football, the idea of zeroing in on an individual has enough novelty value that even fictional people can be compelling.) Considering everything stacked against it, though, “Wimbledon” (2004) does not embarrass itself and is rather likable, if not memorable.
For the first 90 minutes or so, “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989) is shaping up to be the worst of the trilogy chronicling the coming of age and burgeoning karate skills of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The last half-hour redefines the film – somehow written and directed by the returning team of Robert Mark Kamen and John G. Avildsen – as a hilarious unintentional comedy. At least I think it’s unintentional; I suppose it’s possible the film was shot in sequence and the filmmakers decided to lean into the absurdities at this point. It’s still the worst of the trilogy, but at least it gives me my recommended weekly allowance of laughs in one sitting.
The Karate Kid Part II” (1986) is definitely a less sloppy film than the original, without its forbearer’s editing errors, but it’s also a slightly less interesting one. The sequel is often entertaining, but it’s disappointing to see that “The Karate Kid” is apparently going to be a follow-the-formula film series where Daniel (Ralph Macchio) encounters a group of bullies and ultimately defeats them with a special trick move. On the other hand, I can’t quibble about Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) being the focal point of “Part II,” as he is the saga’s best character.
The same thing that excites a viewer about “The Karate Kid” (1984) – the fact that it’s directed by John G. Avildsen and filled with songs by Bill Conti – also brings it crashing down, because “The Karate Kid” is no “Rocky.” It’s no fault of those “Rocky” collaborators — Avildsen gives the film a nice look and gets strong performances out of young Ralph Macchio and veteran Pat Morita, and Conti is on his game, especially with Survivor’s “Moment of Truth” – but many parts of the movie are not fully fleshed out.
Fighting with My Family” doesn’t redefine the sports biopic genre, which in a way is too bad because professional wrestling is such an unusual thing, sitting on the border between athletics and entertainment. It might be fascinating to dig further into the mechanisms of how participants – and ultimately, champions — are chosen and how their narratives are written. As it stands, “Fighting” is a standard biopic in structure, but the story of Paige is so genuinely inspiring, and actress Florence Pugh (“The Little Drummer Girl”) is such a natural star, that the film is totally engaging.
For a long stretch, “Redbelt” (2008) employs Chiwetel Ejiofor and a stellar cast doing strong work in service to a story that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But writer-director David Mamet is planting seeds for a stronger back half where most of it comes together in an unusual mix of Mametian con-job plot and martial-arts fight film. The finished product is still a bizarre blend that makes me question if it’s worth the 1 hour and 40 minutes, but Ejiofor – as big-city jujitsu instructor Mike Terry – ultimately shapes “Redbelt” into a fable about finding a way out of the direst circumstances through sheer training and skill.