Stanley Kubrick supposedly once said; “everything has already been done, every story has been told every scene has been shot, it’s our job to do it one better”. For the boxing film, it really does feel like every story has been told and every scene has indeed been shot. The underdog rags to riches tale, the backbone of the boxing genre, has been battered to a meaningless pulp by everything from Raging Bull and Rocky, to The Fighter and Southpaw. In 2017, how do you get the bruised boxing genre fighting fit again?
For Jawbone’s writer Johnny Harris and director Thomas Napper the answer is to go back to basics. The title fight glamour and trash-taking champs are tossed aside as Jawbone takes up residence under the rumbling railway arches in a vintage South London boxing gym with middle age has-been Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris). When Jimmy’s hemmed in, back against the ropes, taking hit after hit, his trainer Eddie (Michael Smiley) reminds him to think of his training – to just box. It’s deceptively simple advice, but it underpins the entirety of Jawbone and gives it a fighting chance of flawing audiences.
Homeless and crippled by alcoholism, Jimmy McCabe is a product of Conservative Britain’s unforgiving climate. Like Daniel Blake, the system has let him down – forcefully trying to remove him from his home and identity. Cutting an isolated presence in the eerily desolate streets of London, Jimmy finds shelter from the rain and darkness in a railway underpass. Protected from the rain in the pitch black, a ray of light beams across Jimmy’s face mimicking a confessional box, before the doors slide upon and salvation appears in the form of a ghost from his past – the Union Street Boxing Club. Jimmy’s arrival elicits scepticism from his old trainer Bill (Ray Winston), who remains wary of his protegee’s crippling addiction. Desperate for cash, Jimmy agrees to an unauthorised bout up North and readies himself for a fight to save his soul.
Jawbone is cinematic in its purest essence. Dialogue is sparse, meaning the emotional narrative is conjured atmospherically. Napper, in his directorial debut, favours extreme close-ups, blurring the surrounding landscape, to portray Jimmy’s inner turmoil and lack of clarity. We cannot see beyond Jimmy. His ruptured nose, raw stubble and piercing eyes dominate the screen giving us a glimpse into his tortured soul. Harris, clearly motivated from the heart, gives a painfully honest performance, at times presenting Jimmy like an innocent child lost in the world. Muted colours, repetitive movements and an almost eternal darkness add to the dour atmosphere, creating a harsh, inhospitable landscape out of the usually cosmopolitan London.
That’s not to say Jawbone is pure realism ardently opposed to flushes of artistic vision. The boxing club transforms into a cathedral of violence as the street lamps stream through the high windows. The climatic fight is a barbaric frenzy of blood and sweat that’s simultaneously expressionistic and realistic. Napper’s shoots the fight with fast cutting, handheld cameras capable of capturing the raw, imprecise nature of the battle. The intensity is accentuated tenfold by the muted roars of the baying crowd clawing at the ropes.
With Ray Winston, Michael Smiley and Ian McShane, Jawbone’s supporting cast resembles your Dad’s dream team of pub geezers. Rather than lapse into sloppy gangster stereotypes the support are subdue in their performances, adding a subtle gravity to the film’s fine edges. Arguably the film’s most valuable addition is off screen in Paul Weller. The former Jam man and perpetual Modfather has produced an ambient score of electronic zaps, low-fi hums and reverbed guitars that ebbs and flows unobtrusively as the river Thames. It’s the sort of soundtrack that isn’t immediately striking, but without it the brooding atmosphere of isolation and introspection would be far less visceral.
At its core, Jawbone is a classic boxing drama built on an underdog beating his demons and seeking redemption. Harris and Napper successfully imbue this tired cliché of a narrative by grounding it in modest aspirations and an honest heart, taking inspiration from John Huston’s excellent Fat City. Much like Manchester by the Sea, Jawbone reels everything back in to amplify the emotional clout. A simple narrative is executed superbly through a culmination of parts working in tandem at their peak; from Weller’s vital soundtrack to Harris’ weathered performance as Jimmy. If Rocky is unequivocally America, then there’s no mistaking Jawbone as a product of Britain’s low key, high impact style of filmmaking.
8/10 – No Slack Jaws Here