Showtime’s “Rocky Marciano” goes the distance. This look at one man’s rise from rags to ring is an effective and skillfully made biopic that reveals some of the layers hidden beneath a lifetime of struggles. In the title role, Jon Favreau gives a solid performance, and his winning take on Marciano’s demons is absorbing. Although the cable web will bookend its debut with two classics — that night’s fight card includes “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” — auds certainly shouldn’t view this as a second-rate contender.
The only heavyweight champion ever to retire undefeated, Marciano, who died in an Iowa plane crash one day before his 46th birthday, was cheered for his work ethic and devastating right hand; fans rallied around his effort as much as his victories. What they probably didn’t know, however, is that he was utterly afraid of going broke, and the the teleplay, well written by director Charles Winkler (son of Irwin), Larry Golin and Dick Beebe, successfully examines this phobia while exploring the sport’s golden era.
Days before his fateful flight in the summer of 1969, Marciano is away from his wife, Barbara (Penelope Ann Miller), at a New York City speaking engagement. Narrative then travels back to late-’30s Brockton, Mass., where young Rocco Marchegiano navigates the city’s tough streets and his immigrant father, Pierino (a terrific George C. Scott), labors at a local shoe factory.
Rocco lives for Joe Louis’ bouts, huddling up to the radio for every one. Years after the Brown Bomber defeats Max Schmeling in 1938, Marciano, hopping from job to job, decides to enter an amateur competition with his best friend, Allie Colombo (Rino Romano), as his trainer. At first a bust, he turns pro in order to escape his dad’s fate.
His commitment and raw power draw the attention of Al Weill (Judd Hirsch) and Frankie Carbo (Tony Lo Bianco), two weaselly promoters who control the boxing world and use the newly named Marciano as their latest meal ticket. They demand full financial authority over their prized possession, a move that molds him into a miser and haunts him for years to come.
Smaller than his opponents, Marciano relies on his unmatchable stamina and unbreakable spirit to battle up through the ranks. But his trip to the top is almost derailed after he badly injures one of his adversaries: he realizes that his strength may be a curse instead of a blessing. An even bigger jolt comes when he learns that bankruptcy has forced Louis (Duane Davis) out of retirement and that they are set to square off in a high-profile showdown (which Marciano won in 1951).
Favreau, who bulked up considerably, does a good job of getting inside a conflicted character. Sensitive but fearless, Marciano showed genuine concern and forceful determination, and both components are well expressed by the “Swingers” thesp. But it’s Scott who shines brightest: he’s right on as the supportive family leader who wants the best for his son, his gruff exterior the perfect balance to a head full of wisdom.
The execution also works. Winkler utilizes the flashbacks sensibly, laying the groundwork for Marciano’s bizarre behavior after his career ended. And though he doesn’t always achieve the right emotional tone — a lot of potent scenes seem soft — his steady approach is commendable.
Tech credits are top-notch, highlighted by Clayton Halsey’s precise editing and Paul Sarossy’s smooth lensing.