The Phantom Punch


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Phantom Punch is a biopic of boxer Sonny Liston, and not a very good one. Ving Rhames evokes Liston quite well, although he is twenty years too old for the role, but the film is a pedestrian and rather old-fashioned effort which offers neither compelling storytelling nor lively direction. In fact, the direction includes just about every cliché necessary to recreate a 1930's boxing film, except maybe stock footage of trains chugging on one direction with a "Boston" word slide superimposed, followed by trains going in the other direction with a "Philadelphia" word slide. Oh, and maybe it could have used a 365 day calendar with the pages falling off one at a time during a montage of successive fights. But if it had used those clichés, they would have fit right in. The director did use very similar techniques.

In terms of the two great Liston controversies, the film offers the following:

1. The script posits that Liston did not take a dive in either Ali fight, and never took nor would take a dive in his life, not even from the phantom punch (below) which gave the film its title.

2. The screenplay does have an original spin on the death of Liston. As the story is told here, Sonny's manager found out that Sonny was having an affair with his girlfriend. As revenge, the mob-connected manager failed to pass along some important high-level mob instructions to Liston, and then told the local don that Sonny had received the instructions (taking dives) and had refused to comply. The mobsters, the same men who built Sonny's career in the first place, thus engineered the death of their ungrateful protégé.

The problem with taking these two positions is that they are inherently contradictory. By presenting Sonny as a proud man who would never throw a fight, the film rendered the  manager/girlfriend angle nugatory. If Sonny was really as proud as he was pictured here, then there was no need for the manager to tell a lie to the mobsters. He could simply have asked Sonny to throw the fights, as the mob asked him to do. The Sonny of this film would have refused, and that refusal would have signed his death warrant. Furthermore, it made absolutely no difference that Sonny was sleeping with the guy's girlfriend in the first place. Let's assume the opposite - that Sonny and the manager had been on the best of terms, and that the manager wished only the best for his fighter. In that case he would have relayed the mob's requests, the Sonny as presented here would have refused to take a dive, and the result again would have been the same. In other words, the manager/girlfriend angle was completely irrelevant to the plot. The point is that if the mob wanted Sonny to take a dive, and if Sonny was really unwilling to do so, as pictured here, then no other details could alter the final result, and the manager's failure to relay the request would have had no effect on whether Sonny lived or died. Obviously, the only way the girlfriend/manager angle makes sense is if the manager had known that Sonny WOULD have agreed to play ball with the mobsters. In that case, the manager's failure to relay the info to Liston would have been the difference between life and death for Liston, and would have been revenge for the alienated affections of his sweetie. But that particular version of Sonny Liston, the flexible and reasonable guy who might have been willing to take a dive in certain circumstances, is not the Sonny Liston presented here. In other words, if the film wants to stick with point #2 above, it needs to alter point #1.

Blu-Ray DVD


  No major reviews online.


4.9 IMDB summary (of 10)





No theatrical release, or a perfunctory one.





  • None. Brigitte Wilson-Sampras does a sex scene, but she somehow manages to keep everything covered, even in the throes of passion.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


I'm being generous. I think you'll find it rough sledding - sometimes boring, sometimes contradicting itself - even if you are interested in the subject matter, but I made it through the film without the fast forward button, and that's my basic minimum bar for a C-.