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Retro Review: BODY AND SOUL (1981)

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BODY AND SOUL
(US - 1981)

Directed by George Bowers. Written by Leon Isaac Kennedy. Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jayne Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Peter Lawford, Michael V. Gazzo, Perry Lang, Kim Hamilton, Gilbert Lewis, Nikki Swasey, Danny Wells, Johnny Brown, Azizi Johari, Rosanne Katon, Chris Wallace, Al Denavo, Robbie Epps, J. B. Williamson, Mel Welles, DeForrest Covan, Eddie Mustafos, Ola Ray. (R, 105 mins)

"I just wish you were double-jointed so you could turn around and kiss your own ass!" 

A minor hit for Cannon in the fall of 1981 before being generally forgotten in the ensuing decades, BODY AND SOUL was a remake of the 1947 John Garfield boxing classic retooled for Leon Isaac Kennedy and Jayne Kennedy during the brief moment in time when they were a celebrity power couple. Leon was a DJ in Cleveland and Detroit who broke into movies in the early '70s with small roles in HAMMER and MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS before scoring a huge sleeper hit with Jamaa Fanaka's 1979 prison boxing saga PENITENTIARY. Jayne was a model, actress, and sportscaster who became the first African-American woman to co-host a Sunday NFL show in 1978 when she replaced Phyllis George and joined Brent Musberger on CBS'NFL TODAY. Leon and Jayne were married in 1971 and appeared together in Cirio H. Santiago's 1978 Filipino actioner DEATH FORCE (aka FIGHTING MAD), but by 1981, between Leon's success with PENITENTIARY and Jayne's high-profile presence in sports broadcasting and on magazine covers, they had enough clout to get the green light on a dream project like BODY AND SOUL--written by Leon himself--even if it was with Cannon, still finding its niche in the early days of the Golan-Globus era.






Leon stars as Leon Johnson, a gifted boxer who doesn't really take the sport very seriously until his wheelchair-bound kid sister Kelly (Nikki Swasey, who had a recurring role on DIFF'RENT STROKES as Arnold's snobby nemesis, Lisa Hayes) needs expensive treatments to battle sickle cell disease. He drops out of med school to reinvent himself as Leon "The Lover" Johnson, a flashy showoff who even seeks out Muhammad Ali--as himself--as a trainer. Ali turns him down ("Look at you, you look like a mosquito!" the Champ quips), and instead gives him one of his own entourage, grizzled old Frankie (GODFATHER PART II Oscar-nominee Michael V. Gazzo, credited as "Mike Gazzo" in one of those short-lived, mid-career name changes that never stick unless you're Laurence Fishburne--just ask Charles Sheen, Chris Walken, Don Pleasence, Brad Dillman, or Jim Brolin) to function as the Mickey to his Rocky, along with Leon's usual trainer, his goofball buddy Charles (a really terrible performance by Perry Lang). All the while, Leon falls hard for sports reporter Julie Winters (Jayne), who's assigned to cover his quick ascent in the ring and ends up engaged to him over the course of a single montage set to "With You I'm Born Again" by Billy Preston and Syreeta.


Leon and director George Bowers (THE HEARSE, MY TUTOR) lean in on the montage as a way to cut through huge chunks of story, which soon relies on an extensive checklist of every rise-fall-redemption cliche in the playbook: Leon gets seduced by the glitz and glamour, starts sleeping around, Julie catches him in a foursome (!), he's offered a too-good-to-be-true-deal by a sleazy, corrupt, mob-connected promoter "Big Man" (Peter Lawford, in one of his last films), and Charles falls under the spell of drugs after one of Big Man's flunkies (Gilbert Lewis) gives him some coke and immediately gets him hooked ("Hey, man...you ever heard of freebasing?" he asks Charles in the most Afterschool Special tone imaginable). Big Man then offers Leon $200,000 to bet against himself and throw a fight, forcing him to get his priorities together, win back Julie, get Charles off drugs after they have a huge falling-out ("Give your money to your dope man for your freebase and your angel dust!"), and finally get some workout time in with Ali, who takes part in a sparring sequence with the writer/star but you can tell The Champ--who would lose his final fight and retire from the ring a month after BODY AND SOUL hit theaters--is going a little easy on him.


Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), BODY AND SOUL has enough overwrought elements that you almost wish it would go all-in on its heavy-handed histrionics, whether it's Charles' drug addiction ("We created monsters, Leon!") or the soap opera melodrama of Leon and Julie's up-and-down relationship. She has to put up with his ego, his female fan base who call themselves "Leon's Lovelies" and throw their panties in the ring during his fights, and then she bets it all when she mortgages her house and puts it all on him to win, forcing him to put integrity first ("I don't play with hearts the way you do!" she yells, reminding him "I bet every cent I have on my man to win!"), even though he's ostensibly only in it for his sister ("You bought into it! You became your biggest fan!"). The climactic bout, pitting Leon against Big Man's next big thing--raging psycho Ricardo "Madman" Santiago (Al Denavo), who's introduced violently hurling a baby to the ground when its diaper leaks on his lap--is one of the most ludicrously absurd boxing matches ever depicted onscreen. Santiago does about 25 things worthy of disqualification--including below-the-belt hits, a very late blow to the head after the bell, and an early version of Mike Tyson's infamous Evander Holyfield ear chomp--and yet the ref never stops the fight.


Sure, BODY AND SOUL is dumb, predictable, and formulaic as hell, but there's a scrappy energy to it amidst all the stupidity. It never goes all the way into full-on bad movie territory but takes itself just seriously enough to be sufficiently amusing in an unintentional way. Leon Isaac Kennedy--who, despite his striking resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard and starring in several boxing movies, was not an actual boxer--would reteam with Jamaa Fanaka for 1982's PENITENTIARY II and 1987's insane PENITENTIARY III (the latter tragically MIA on DVD and Blu-ray), and would write and star in 1986's KNIGHTS OF THE CITY (featuring Smokey Robinson, an old friend from his Motown radio days and best man at his and Jayne's wedding), while staying busy in B movies like 1983's LONE WOLF MCQUADE, 1985's TOO SCARED TO SCREAM, and 1986's HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD. Both Leon and Jayne would retire from acting by the early '90s, with Leon becoming a minister and Jayne devoting much of her time to the charity organization Children's Miracle Network and raising awareness for endometriosis after being diagnosed with the condition in the late '80s. BODY AND SOUL didn't lead to further pairings for the celebrity couple, however: they divorced in 1982, not long after the film's release.


BODY AND SOUL opening in Toledo, OH on 11/20/1981




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