The title of Starz!'s Joe and Max
may sound like a sitcom, but this original fact-based drama about heavyweight fighters Joe Louis and Max Schmeling is certainly not frivolous.
The film — which spans the years 1935 to 1952 — is also more than a boxing movie. In fact, it spends barely 18 minutes inside the ring.
It's more a tale of love, friendship, deceit and the story of the intrusive role that Louis's and Schmeling's home countries, on the brink of war, played in the combatants' careers.
Though both are little-known, lead actors Leonard Roberts as Louis and Til Schweiger as Schmeling make this drama come alive.
With war seemingly imminent in the late 1930s, the match between Louis and Schmeling became a confrontation between a "colored" American and a "superior" German Aryan. But even though the media portrayed the fighters as archenemies, they apparently became longtime friends.
The two first meet in the ring at Yankee Stadium in 1936, with Louis beaten in a 12th-round upset.
Neither fighter is treated well by his associates or his country. Louis's promoter Mike Jacobs (Bruce Weitz) gives away 10 percent of his fighter's lifetime earnings to rival Jimmy Braddock's camp to keep "the Nazi" from getting a title match.
After Louis beats Braddock in 1937, a Louis-Schmeling rematch is set for 1938, with Jacobs trying to finagle a deal in which he'd become Schmeling's promoter should the German win. Louis, however, scores a first-round knockout.
Both men are later drafted, with Schmeling sent to the front lines by a vengeful Hitler regime.
In post-war Germany, Max fares well as Coca-Cola's ad spokesman, and uses a trip to Atlanta as an opportunity to visit Louis in Chicago.
Financially hard-pressed by Jacobs' business shenanigans and Internal Revenue Service's pursuit of $1.2 million in back taxes, Louis must keep fighting well past his prime. He finally loses his title to Rocky Marciano in 1952.
The boxers' personal lives have also diverged. In contrast to the failed love story of Joe and wife Marva (Siena Goines) — due to Louis's womanizing — Max and his actress wife, Anny (Peta Wilson), remain together.
Writer Jason Horwitch and director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) wring considerable emotion from a series of rather short vignettes that span nearly three decades.
Kudos also go to director of photography Bill Butler and production designer Chester Kaczenski for their contributions to the movie, shot on location in Berlin and at its Studio Babelsberg.
Joe and Max
premieres March 9 at 8 p.m. on Starz!