"Body and Soul" borrows a title but no significant inspiration from the vintage John Garfield vehicle, the definitive fatalistic boxing melodrama of the late '40s. An obviously slapdash production, the new "Body and Soul" recycles cliche'd morsels from the old boxing chestnuts along with that contemporary rabble-rouser, "Rocky."
Now at area theaters, "Body and Soul" is harmlessly and sometimes amiably tacky, but it's also compromised by pinched resources and poor workmanship. For example, it's a disservice to the natural talent on the screen, notably Jayne Kennedy, who succeeded Phyllis George as the tantalizing distraction on National Football League telecasts. Kennedy's bewitchingly pretty face is often the only luminous surface in shots so maddeningly underlit that all the action seems to be taking place in symbolic dingy cubicles of an athletic underworld.
While nominally a "straight" melodrama about the rise and near-corruption of a popular young champion, the movie proves most engaging when taking slap-happy tangents that push the material near the edge of satiric farce. The cocky hero, Leon Jackson, is meant to combine the fighting style of Ray Leonard with the rhetorical style of Muhammad Ali, who makes an avuncular guest appearance as himself. Jackson is played by Leon Isaac Kennedy, who bears a striking, exploitable resemblance to Leonard and happens to be, although not for much longer, the actor husband of Jayne Kennedy. A welterweight who promotes himself as a smug dreamboat, Leon the Lover, in order to move up fast, Jackson slugs his way to glory in two title bouts so preposterous that they out-hoax the rematch in "Rocky II."
In the first, Leon batters a reigning champ known as The Iceman, whose style consists of soaking up punishment while looking for the opening for a knockout punch. The Iceman's Sunday Punch catapults Leon out of the ring, but thanks to the second-longest count in boxing history (the longest being reserved for a concluding fight sequence), the challenger returns to make even bloodier pulp of the champ's ugly mug.
Sold out by his heartless gangster manager -- Peter Lawford as a contemptible smoothie called Big Man -- Leon defies the mob and the odds by staging a miraculous comeback against a raging bull called Ricardo "Madman" Santiago, an outrageous caricature of Roberto Duran. The switch in Fight Two is that Madman pulverizes Leon for 10 rounds, only to suffer an incredible reversal in the closing stanzas.
The turnabout is triggered when Madman mutters something disparaging about Leon's kid sister, an insufferable little angel-face stricken with sickle cell anemia. This inspirational invalid, Kelly, is the feeblest cliche' in the scenario. (Harking back to the old boxing movies, Leon has defied his mother's wish that he enter medical school in order to raise money for Kelly's care by entering the ring.)
It's Leon's devotion to Kelly that also earns him the love of newscaster Julie Winters, the righteous glamorpuss embodied by Jayne Kennedy. Unlike the playful, buxom tootsies that hedonistic Leon can't resist frolicking with, even after Julie enters the picture, the heroine is identified as a prize worthy of only clean-cut, self-sacrificing -- dare one say sanctimonious? -- suitors. The movie reflects such a sharp disparity between sacred and profane notions of love that Leon's attraction to Julie looks slightly schizoid.
The romance between Leon and Julie is consummated in picturesque cliche': overlapping dissolves of bodies abstractly, indistinctly intertwined, to slurpy musical accompaniment, in contrast to the facetious romps with mere groupies and hookers.
When the lovers awaken, Leon discovers that Julie has gotten up bright and early to improve his character by putting him on the spot with the mob. Words of gratitude fail him, somehow. Under the circumstances, you can't help wondering if beauty is really worth the aggravation.
In its hackneyed way "Body and Soul" seems to reflect an authentic aspect of the human comedy, masculine division -- the fantasy of becoming all desirable things to all conceivable women while also excelling as a two-fisted man's man.
Though scarcely a novel concoction, "Body and Soul" is perhaps the least the movies could do, given a generation or more of black domination in the fight game. To some extent the popularity of "Rocky" must have derived from nostalgic yearning for a white heavyweight contender, and a similar unconscious sentiment may be detected in the stirring but resolutely backward-looking British sports film "Chariots of Fire," which glorifies the Olympic sprinting champions of 1924. It wouldn't take much imagination to perceive a far more stirring and provocative sports spectacle built around Jesse Owens' accomplishments at the 1936 Olympics, but I won't hold my breath waiting for it.