There’s been enough boxing movies in the past few weeks to send us punch drunk. The tour de force that was James Cosmo in The Pyramid Texts. The smaller Six Rounds, set against the backdrop of the 2011 riots. And the least typical of the lot, The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki, all the way from Finland. The latter is more of a love story, Six Rounds has a political message and The Pyramid Texts is all about a father and son relationship, with boxing as its backdrop.
Jawbone is different – and yet it’s not. Because it returns to the more traditional style of boxing movie. Their specialist subject is usually redemption and the film sticks with the time honoured formula. Former amateur champion Jimmy (Johnny Harris) has hit rock bottom: his mother has died, his wife and child have left him, he’s lost his home and he’s hit the bottle. In a last-ditch bid to clean up his act, he returns to his old boxing club to train but can’t resist the temptation of some quick money – by taking on an unlicensed fight. He’ll earn a packet, but he’s out of shape and his opponent is notoriously vicious. A real David and Goliath fight.
Jawbone is the debut feature from Thomas Napper, for the past 12 years the second unit director to Joe Wright. Its star, Johnny Harris, also produced the film and wrote the script – the first time he’d done both – based on his experiences as a young amateur boxer. Which makes this a deeply personal film – and it shows so much that you can almost smell the sweat. There’s an intensity about the film, one that’s as direct and straightforward as one of Johnny’s right hooks. It never fails to absorb – and it never gets near the ropes.
Balancing the comparative newbies are some familiar faces. Ray Winstone as Bill, the boxing gym owner, gruff on the outside, compassionate on the inside. Ian McShane as the sinister local kingpin, Joe, who sets up Jimmy’s illegal fight – his blood money, if you like. And, best of all, Michael Smiley as Eddie, Winstone’s right hand man and corner man to the boxers. Smiley has turned in some great work in the past few years – Orthodox (coincidentally, another boxing movie) and more recently Free Fire – but this is easily his best: weighed down with sadness yet with more than enough determination to keep himself, and everybody else around him, going. As the illegal fight grows ever closer, you can taste the tension – and you can taste Smiley’s sadness.
Harris holds his own against the older hands, committing himself to a performance that’s just as much about the physical as it is about the verbal. We’re treated to frequent close ups of his unshaven, often sweaty face, in the grainy camera style of the film. With so many scenes in low lighting or at night, and often in down at heel urban settings, it evokes exactly the right atmosphere.
The film gives us the occasional touch of social commentary – the early scenes where Jimmy tries to prevent his eviction from his council flat echo the DWP scenes from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake – but its focus is very much on Jimmy, his quest for redemption and boxing. And those scenes in the ring, as well as the training sessions at the gym, are shot through with the authenticity that comes from having Barry and Shane McGuigan as boxing consultants to flesh out Harris’s own memories.
Non-boxing fans might find the latter stages of the film hard going, but there’s more than enough in the way of believable character studies and strong, clear narrative to make up for that. Most importantly of all, there’s an emotional honesty about the film that guarantees your involvement from start to finish. Its heart beats. Loudly.
Jawbone is released in cinemas today.