If you're generally in the mood for light, uplifting movies, chances are you aren't enamored of the boxing genre. To be sure, the wonderful "Rocky" films assured viewers of a happy, upbeat ending, but they were marketed for mass audience appeal. On the other side of the coin, most of the films that explore the ironically nicknamed "Sweet Science" of boxing center on the gritty underbelly of the sport. As far back as Wallace Beery's "The Champ" through "Champion", "Requiem for a Heavyweight", "Fat City" and "Raging Bull", the general theme has been to present the peculiar world of boxing and boxers as one of unrelenting cruelty, exploitation, double-crosses and physical punishment. Small wonder that few such films had viewers emerging from theaters with broad smiles on their faces. Yet, the boxing genre is a reliable staple when it comes to presenting thoroughly engrossing tales and the latest entry, a low-budget British film, "Jawbone" can justifiably take its place among the major achievements in the genre.
You probably never heard of "Jawbone". which had a very limited theatrical release in the UK and is now making its debut in America through a DVD release from Lionsgate. I had no expectations for the movie but decided to give the review screener a try, as I've always had a weakness for boxing films."Jawbone" grabs you from the very first frames. We see the central character, Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) in the depths of depression, sitting night after night in the dock areas of London and under the city's bridges swilling down hard liquor from a bottle. We learn that he is destitute and about to be evicted from his childhood home which he shared with his beloved mother, who passed away some months before. He's offered housing by the local council but he stubbornly refuses. It's a battle he can't win and he ends up homeless. We learn he was once a boxer of some repute and out of desperation, he returns to the gritty gym where he once trained. The owner, Bill Carney (Ray Winstone), was once Jimmy's mentor, a function he still provides for street kids from the neighborhood he continues to train. Jimmy lost Bill's respect when he began his downward spiral, but he implores his old friend to give him one more chance by allowing him to train at the gym and to lodge there as well. Bill has a heart-to-heart talk with Jimmy and informs him that any return to his bad habits will see him permanently banned from the gym. Grateful, Jimmy joins Alcoholics Anonymous but is so ashamed of his transgressions that he can't accept the outpouring of support from the other members. Still, he resists taking to the bottle and begins an intense period of training. Bill and his partner Eddie ((Michael Smiley) recognize that he still has some of his old abilities and support his efforts at redemption. However, Jimmy desperately needs some money so he seeks out an old acquaintance, Joe Padgett (Ian McShane), a superficially friendly fight promoter who specializes in matches that are so brutal they aren't officially recognized.The smarmy Joe treats the starving Jimmy to a fat steak dinner and advances him a couple of hundred quid- then tells him he can arrange for him to make some sure money by participating in grueling off-the-grid match against a particularly vicious, undefeated opponent. He warns that Jimmy will probably be pulverized but the loser is guaranteed a paltry 2500 pounds, of which Joe will take a 50% slice.
"Jawbone" follows some well-worn story elements of the genre. We see Jimmy rally his strength, train to the point of exhaustion and arrive at the big match. He finds it closer to the experience of being a gladiator in ancient Rome. There are the bare bones symbols of civility: a referee and a busty ring girl who holds up a sign announcing each round. but the only rule is not to hit below the waist. Anything and everything else goes. Jimmy finds himself the underdog amidst a roaring crowd of barbarians who are cheering on the vicious champion. The fight that follows is as terrifically exciting and well-filmed as any you've seen in more commercial boxing movies. But "Jawbone" is about much more than this one exciting sequence. It's about the human condition and the ability- or inability- of one man to conquer his personal demons. The film is superbly acted with writer/star Johnny Harris giving the kind of performance that generally gets BAFTA and Oscar recognition. Similarly, the supporting cast is superb with Winstone and Smiley particularly good and McShane riveting in his small but pivotal role. Much credit goes to director Thomas Napper, a highly regarded second-unit director on numerous blockbuster films, who breaks out as a director of great skill with this film. Although "Jawbone" has many elements of the traditional boxing film, it steadfastly avoids the predictable love story. There isn't a love interest for Jimmy because he can barely keep himself alive. Harris's script resonates with great, believable dialogue and the film is complimented by a fine musical score by Paul Weller, excellent cinematography by Tat Radcliffe and editing by David Charap. Everything about "Jawbone" is impressive, especially the fact that Harris and Napper manage to convey a great deal of emotion into the brief 90 minute running time. There isn't a wasted frame and by the film's emotional climax you realize it didn't need to run a second longer. This is economic filmmaking at its best. The movie is an outstanding achievement for all concerned and one can only gripe that it didn't get the theatrical distribution it so richly deserved. However, the Lionsgate DVD offers a very fine transfer and a very interesting "making of" documentary that describes how the bare bones production came together and ended up looking so good. There is also a gallery of trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
"Jawbone" is one of the best indie films I've seen in quite some time. If you'll excuse an unpardonable pun, it's a knockout.