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THE PRIZE FIGHTER hasn't garnered much attention since its initial release in 1979. Watching this film, one understands why. It's a drab mediocrity unworthy of the talents of Tim Conway and Don Knotts. It's more distressing to learn that Conway co-wrote the screenplay. He had a chance for creative control on this project but for whatever reason he couldn't take advantage of it.
In this Depression-era setting, Conway's a clumsy boxer called Bags and Knotts is his smart-alecky manager, Shake. They think they've struck gold when a powerful gangster named Mike (Robin Clarke) offers them a series of fights leading to a title bout. Unknown to them, Mike's using them as pawns in a scheme. He'll have Bags win some fixed fights and then get clobbered by the champion (Michael LaGuardia). Mike'll force Pop Morgan (David Wayne), an insolvent old man who befriends Bags and Shake, to bet his entire gym on the challenger.
The film's outcome is predictable but that wouldn't matter if THE PRIZE FIGHTER was entertaining. It isn't. As a comedy, it only gets by with scattered chuckles, due mostly to Conway and Knotts rather than the material. Stale gags like an auto encounter with a truck of chickens are trotted out. Worst of all, Conway's denied the opportunity to showcase his physical comedy gifts in the gym and ring; he's relegated to obvious stunts that any second-rate performer could do.
The film also fails in the area of sentimentality. Bags and Shake become surrogate fathers to an orphan boy, Timmy (George Nutting). The scenes with the child, however, are handled perfunctorily. Attempts at being heartwarming are further hampered by Nutting's wooden performance.
THE PRIZE FIGHTER cannot be considered the low point in Conway and Knotts's careers. They've done worse. But they've done much better and that realization makes the film so dismaying.
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