Phantom Punch

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Austin Film Festival

AUSTIN, Texas -- Sonny Liston gets the biopic treatment in “Phantom Punch,” a rise-and-fall boxing tale that’s never quite as dark as its subject might require. A bit small for the big screen, it could attract audiences on cable and disk by virtue of its subject.

Ving Rhames stars and is easily the production’s biggest asset, bringing a sturdy dignity and impressive physicality to the part. His Liston isn’t a beast, but he’s ill-equipped to deal with the civilized world: When confronted by racist cops, he’s incapable of walking away or swallowing his pride but instead gets into fights that eventually force him to leave St. Louis.

Ryan Combs’ screenplay tries to address the birth of Liston’s demons with a perfunctory scene in which the fighter suffers nightmares about his abusive father. Like much of the screenplay -- the opening half-hour, for instance, which rushes through Liston’s introduction to pro boxing without fleshing anything out -- the material is handled clumsily.

Director Robert Townshend and his team do what they can with the resources they have so “Punch” grows more satisfying after a rough start. Some unconvincing supporting performances dog the film, and on certain crucial topics such as Liston’s reputed mob connections or womanizing viewers may feel they’re seeing too little of the picture for these to matter. Scenes in the ring work a good deal better, but the overall portrait is too lightweight for such a legendary fighter.

Production companies: Access Motion Pictures, Byron A. Martin Productions, MP Productions, Phantom Punch No. 1 Productions

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