Joe and Max (2002)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Jason Horwitch
Directed by Steve James
Starring Leonard Roberts, Til Schweiger, Peta Wilson, Richard Roundtree, John Toles-Bey, and David Paymer


Released by: Columbia-Tristar
Rating: PG-13
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Rent it if you're a boxing fan, pass otherwise

When Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling the first time, his defeat at the hands of the German heavyweight was a blow to the collective confidence of the American sports world. The seemingly invincible Louis just couldn't match the technical expertise and precision style of Schmeling, and he paid for it. Meanwhile, the German propaganda machine, with Goebbels at its head, turned the fight into proof positive of the superiority of the "master race," hitching their ideology to Schmelling's prowess despite Max's protests. Never a big fan of the current German regime, Max finds himself forced to toe the line if he wants to continue boxing, and he's torn between his Jewish friends and the future of his fighting career and his young wife.

Joe and Max depicts the growing friendship and mutual respect of these two fighters who met twice in the 1930s, splitting the victories between them. Originally a made-for-TV film, it carries all the typical problems of such projects: a slightly heavy-handed moralizing script, pacing jarred to accomodate commercial breaks, and a budget just barely big enough to put the thing on film. Despite this, the performances of Roberts and Schweiger save the film from terrible mediocrity and make it a worthwhile rental for fans of the sports world, especially boxing fans. The movie also doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of either Louis' personal life or Schmeling's fight against his own leadership, though it does tend to gloss over the former to spend more time on the latter.

Louis (Roberts) is portrayed as the cocky, swaggering champion that he was. He was a bit of a philanderer, and seemed distinctly uncomfortable with the role of "racial role model" that was dropped on his shoulders, preferring to do all his talking in the ring. Schmeling (Schweiger) was hyped as the ultimate Aryan pugilist, despite his own protestations against such labels. While the sequence of Max hiding his Jewish friends during Kristalnacht is likely apocryphal, it has a certain genuine feel to it, in keeping with his character as established elsewhere. Peta Wilson steps up admirably as Max's wife, not thrilled with her husband's stubborn refusal to toe the line, though she softens after meeting both Goebbels and Hitler himself and finding them remarkably creepy. Richard Roundtree makes a good fit as Joe's trainer and coach, though he doesn't get enough screen time to really make a huge impact.

The story tends to spend more time on Max's predicament, perhaps because it is in many ways more interesting. While Joe Louis had his share of problems, they were mostly either marital or tax-related, which doesn't have the same narrative punch as a man making a stand against his racist government that was bent on world domination. It is kind of tragic, however, to think that Joe Louis died penniless because the IRS wanted to rake him over the coals for a slew of fights he staged during WW2, particularly since he donated all the money generated from said fights to the Army. The scene late in the film when Max comes to visit Joe in America and offers to help him out of his ridiculous tax predicament is touching, though perhaps a touch higher in saccharine than was absolutely necessary.

The DVD comes with nothing much in the way of extras, which is a shame. There's certainly bound to be some newsreel footage of the fights themselves somewhere, and it couldn't have been too difficult to obtain them and include the two fights as bonus footage. Would have made this a real must-have for fight fans. Alas, nobody seizes the obvious opportunity, so the disc rates as a rental only for sports fans.

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