ESPN 30 for 30: Tommy (2017)

Directed by Gentry Kirby & Erin Leyden

Boxing seems to be a great canvas on which compelling stories tend to unfold, in real life and the movies. Rocky is one of the most successful and longest running franchises in movies with the recent release of Creed. Sylvester Stallone was able to tap into something basic in the human experience with the underdog story of Rocky Balboa, and the sport of boxing made for the perfect backdrop to tell his story. Today, Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, seems to be the popular blood sport, but in times past, boxing was the big attraction. It was as close to a mainstream sport as soccer feels today in America. Tommy Morrison is a unique player in the sports history. He had the opportunity to play a part in Stallone’s Rocky V, while also getting a shot at a real life heavyweight title.

Morrison grew up in a family of fighters. His uncles, his father, his grandfather, all were fighters. But growing up in the small town of Jay, Oklahoma, Tommy experienced life a little different than most people. He started his career off hot, winning tons of fights, working his way up in the heavyweight division. But it seemed every time he got a prime opportunity after a big fight, he would fall right back down a peg. Much of this can be credited to Morrison’s lifestyle, one that was fast and loose. He would train extremely hard during the day, and go drink and party and womanize all night. His life was a roller coaster which included two marriages (at the same time), and ultimately his banishment from the sport after testing positive for HIV. But his story didn’t end there, denying the positive test, declaring it a hoax, and attempting to come back to boxing and live the lifestyle which he had grown accustomed.

Tommy Morrison’s story is bizarre and extremely sad. That much is immediately obvious. However, the manner in which directors Gentry Kirby and Erin Leyden, who also collaborated on the 30 for 30 This Magic Moment, are contented to deliver the story in a paint by numbers style. It feels stale with no deep felt emotion or attempt to necessarily empathize with its subject. The film flows from start to finish as though it is simply sleepwalking through the editing room, going through the motions during the interview process. Morrison’s story is dynamite, no doubt about that, but then why did the film about his exciting and tragic life feel, well, lifeless? The filmmaking in the 30 for 30 series is often suspect, with stories carrying most installments throughout, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing to see it yet again.

I am generally a huge fan of the series, and there are a number of episodes I would enthusiastically endorse and recommend, so I don’t want it to feel like I am dumping on the series, or even this film specifically. There is plenty to be compelled by here, but it is also disappointing that Morrison is no longer alive to give his side of the story. But we get plenty of good interviews from his ex-wives (there are three of them), his mother, his trainer and his promoter. Tommy’s story is essentially another demise story, but with a medical twist. The HIV narrative has been told before with both The Announcement (about Magic Johnson), and Tim Richmond: To the Limit. I would wager to say that both those films are slightly better than this pedestrian effort, but that doesn’t make the story less impactful.

To understand the life and psyche of someone like Tommy Morrison may be an impossible task. Was his womanizing rooted in his upbringing by his equally womanizing father, or his enabling friends? Was his penchant for partying the result of a high stress life in the limelight? Was his later life fall from grace and incomprehensible denial of his disease the result of brain trauma from his fighting career? All these questions are important to piecing together the life and story of Tommy Morrison, but I’m not sure their sum reveals a coherent answer. Brain trauma is not even addressed here, but it perhaps plays one of the biggest roles in who Morrison was, especially later in his life. All in all, Tommy is an interesting enough story to engage for its relatively short runtime, but it is not a film I could endorse.

** 1/2 – Average

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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