Ving Rhames gives compelling performance as Sonny Liston in Phantom Punch
Poor supporting performances dog gangster movie by numbers
Perhaps the most duplicitous aspect of Robert Townsend’s account of the life of heavyweight champ Sonny Liston is the title itself. Liston’s rematch with Mohammed Ali ended early with a punch that simply didn’t look like a knockout. Liston’s rather theatrical slump to the canvas has been variously explained as a mafia fix, a genuine punch or a psychological collapse by Liston. Whatever the enduring mystery, it remains an enigma at the end of this film.
Meantime, we follow Ving Rhames’ as-much-brutalised-as-brutal champ from his discovery in prison, through his early engagement with gangsters to his notorious affair with his mob handler’s wife, and finally to his death by probable mafia hit. There’s a nice sense of the 1950s and 60s setting to the film, and Rhames gives a compelling central performance, capturing the causalities that made Liston, by turns, monstrous, frail and childlike, but much of the rest is gangster movie by numbers, and poor performances by Stacey Dash and Bridgette Wilson as respective wife and mistress don’t help. Pedestrian extras.