It’s just as well that the characters in Uppercut discuss Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood’s 2004 Oscar-winning sports film, because there’s no way anyone who sees this German two-hander could miss the obvious parallels. Written and directed by Torsten Ruether, making his feature debut, Uppercut almost plays like a very low-budget European remake of Baby stripped down to the barest essentials: Girl meets boxing coach, girl implores coach to train her. Cue montage, eventful fight, roll credits. Those who may feel Baby‘s screenplay by Paul Haggis hasn’t aged well might say it’s an improvement that at least Uppercut doesn’t digress into a euthanasia debate.
Made during the pandemic with a skeleton crew, two cameras and just the two actors — Hardy Daniel Krueger as Rick the boxing coach and Luise Grossmann as the aspiring fighter — Uppercut has a certain honest simplicity that suits the material. After all, what is a boxing match other than two people slugging it out in a ring? That said, despite the almost jittery shot/reverse-shot editing that feels like it’s straining to make the action more cinematic, Uppercut evokes an evening of theater more than a night at the arena.
The Bottom Line
Swings hard but doesn’t quite connect.
In fact, the use of too many cuts rather drains the credibility from the physicality of the performances, which surely isn’t Ruether’s intention. Indeed, Grossmann’s athletic teenager Steph wants more than anything to convince Krueger’s washed-up former champ Rick that she has was it takes to go the distance as his disciple. To persuade him, one night after-hours and uninvited, she slips into the gym he runs in Wedding, a suburb of Berlin, and tries to talk him into mentoring her. True to genre form, he of course says no at first. But her persistence, willingness to help him polish the chrome on the workout equipment and, quite bizarrely, eagerness to demonstrate via improvisational interpretive dance a shared enthusiasm for the music of American country group The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) somehow persuade him to give her a chance.
It’s not quite clear how much his decision is influenced by the fact that young Steph is quite comely, lithe and dressed for the most part in shorts, and clearly aware that using her looks is one move she can make, albeit perhaps not the knockout punch she expects. When, at one point, she offers to have sex with him in order to get what she wants, he looks offended and she immediately apologizes for her mistake. However, he also seems keen for her to acknowledge his heterosexuality.
The whole sexual back-and-forth, will they or won’t they stuff is frankly pretty icky, especially given that there’s clearly an age difference of at least 30 years between the two characters. It’s not clear whether we’re meant to be repelled by the flirting or have another kind of reaction, and that muddled approach to sexual politics is one of the film’s major flaws. Ultimately, the movie feels like a throwback to a simpler time, when trainers were butch and rugged and female boxers were still a novelty and needed to be pretty if they were to be of interest. It seems apt that the digital cinematography likewise harkens back to pop videos of the early 1990s or so, with pools of light surrounded by darkness, all the better to make all the sweaty flesh on display glisten.