DVD Cover, Screen MediaThe life and death of former World Heavyweight Boxing Champ Sonny Liston is filled with controversy. You would think the life story of an illiterate ex-con becoming a world boxing champion would be inspirational, but it is really a tragedy.

Phantom Punch, directed by Robert Townsend and written by Ryan Combs, is based on Rob Steen’s 1993 book Sonny Boy: The Life and Strive of Sonny Liston. 

Abused by his father as a child, Sonny Liston, played by Ving Rhames, was introduced to boxing while in prison by a Catholic priest named Father Alios (Rick Roberts, Man of the Year). Sonny is a natural and he becomes the prison champion. After being released, Sonny quickly rises up the professional rankings with the help of his mobster manager Ceasar Novak (Nicholas Turturro, TV’s NYPD Blue).

During this time, Sonny also meets the love of his life and his future wife, Geraldine (Stacy Dash). That is until Sonny is introduced to Farah (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Shopgirl), former prostitute turned Las Vegas club singer and girlfriend of Ceasar. Do you see any potential problems here???

After knocking out Floyd Patterson in the 1st round to become the heavyweight champ and doing it again in their rematch, Sonny Liston was on top of the world. Sonny’s downfall would begin a short time later when he would lose his title to a young, brash boxer who liked to refer to himself as “The Greatest in the World”.

After losing the rematch to a “phantom punch” because no one saw it, Sonny was accused of taking a dive. A claim that Sonny would deny for the rest of his life. Sonny would attempt a comeback, but he would never again return to the top of the mountain.

You can tell that Phantom Punch must have been made with a tight budget because the production value is not very good. The sets, especially the boxing scenes, are overly simple and lacking depth. When you see old footage of Sonny’s matches, he would fight in decent size arenas, but in this production, his fights look like they took place in a small American Legion or bingo hall.

The boxing choreography also has no energy or excitement to it. In the Rocky movies (1-4) and in Cinderella Man, you could feel the buzz in the crowd and the frenzy in the fighters as they slugged it out. In Phantom Punch, you feel like the actors are just going through the motions without putting any enthusiasm into their acting.

Ving Rhames has prior experience playing a boxer due to his role as a prison boxing champ in Undisputed (2002) opposite Wesley Snipes. He also portrayed famed boxing promoter Don King in the TV movie Don King: Only in America (1997).

In this film, Rhames shows some nice emotion early in the movie, but then he becomes like a cinder block the rest of the way as his performance becomes monotone and lifeless. Rhames has the perfect look to be Sonny Liston, but his acting is often flat at various points throughout the movie.

The best display of acting comes from Bridgette Wilson-Sampras. FYI, yes, she is married to tennis great Pete Sampras. You can feel her despair as she longs for a man to love her as a person and to treat her with respect, instead of just being some meathead’s “trophy babe”. This is really evident in the scene when she sings “The Man That I Love”, whose lyrics were written by director Robert Townsend.

Nicholas Turturro is very effective as the slick, quick talking mobster. It seems like Ceasar could talk a person into just about anything and talk his way out of just about everything. He’s able to talk Sonny into joining him on a hit and he successfully talks his mob boss Savino (David Proval, The Sopranos) out of not supporting Sonny’s boxing career.

While Phantom Punch does have its flaws, Robert Townsend still successfully creates an interesting life portrait of fallen ex-boxing champ Sonny Liston. Townsend stated that he wanted “to humanize him and give equal focus to the man and his relationships”  and it is this approach that captures the viewers interest while making its shortcomings feel minor.

While Phantom Punch will probably never make anyone’s list of Best Sports movies or even Best Boxing movies, it is still worthy of your attention and it is better than most direct-to-DVD movies you will find.

Phantom Punch is currently available on DVD.