Fight to the Finnish: Boxing movie 'Olli Maki' is the anti-'Rocky'

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that Chuck might be one of the last movies we’re likely to see about the declining sport of boxing.

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

A boxing movie called Jawbone is  doing well in British cinemas, and this week sees the arrival of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. It’s a quirky, fact-based movie (it won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2016) about a boxing also-ran that has some vague similarities to Chuck, but the sunny title tells you that this import from Finland (it’s subtitled, in black-and-white for period effect) is not your average fight film.

Certainly it will look strange to American eyes – we don’t see too many biopics in this country about guys who think winning isn’t everything, the only thing, or even that much of a thing.

Maki (Jarkko Lahti), who fought for the World Featherweight title in 1962, was such a guy. Even on the eve of a title shot (against American Davey Moore) in his home city of Helsinki, he’s noncommittal. When a journalist asks him about the match, Maki responds with a candid shrug.

“I’ll fight, and we’ll see.”

That’s not just a guy with a poor sense of marketing. Maki’s disinterest is genuine. He’s skilled enough to be a European champion, but he does not have what, in Rocky parlance, is known as the eye of the tiger.

Outside the ring, Maki wouldn’t hurt a fly. In fact, that’s a sequence in the film. Maki sees a bunch of kids trying to swat a fly, traps it in a glass, and releases it into the open air.

The ambition in the Maki camp comes from his hard-driving manager (Eero Milanoff), who sees the fight as an event that will advance his prospects among Finland’s elite. He pushes Maki to train hard, but the fighter loses focus when his pretty girlfriend (Oona Airola) gets bored and goes back home. In a few days, Maki joins her.

U.S. audiences conditioned to underdog formulas may find this movie baffling. If you wait around for the moment when Maki finally Gets It, and the music kicks in, and he starts doing one-armed push-ups and bursts into the ring ready to become a champion, you’ll be waiting a long time.

In fact, there’s a kind of anti-Rocky scene of Maki alone on a run, getting distracted. He spots a kid’s kite stuck in a tree, retrieves it, and starts running around to get it airborne. That’s right – gonna fly a kite now.

Maki is all heart, but it belongs to his girlfriend. The fight scenes are forgettable, but the scene in which he proposes – the most unsentimental you will ever see – is one for the books.

MOVIE REVIEW

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen. With Oona Airola, Joonas Saartamo, Jarkko Lahti, Distributed by MUBI.

Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

Parent's guide: Not rated (adult themes, boxing).

Playing at: Ritz Bourse.