The sports drama is one that is consistently impressive as a sub-genre, particularly more recently with films like Foxcatcher (2015), Rush (2013), Moneyball (2011) and The Blind Side (2009). New British boxing film Jawbone certainly conforms to the sports drama sub-genre and, thankfully, continues this rule: sport dramas make impressive cinema.
Jawbone follows former youth boxing champion Jimmy McCabe, who hits rock bottom, so returns to his childhood boxing club. Set in grimy, urban South London, Jawbone is not short of violence and alcoholism. But it somehow doesn’t fall into the stereotypical urban “gritty and grey” drama; it’s a lot more subtle than that. It’s hard-hitting, powerful and explores themes of the working class, the struggle for survival and it’s focus on an older boxer (not rather dissimilar to Rocky).
The action is never boring, as director Thomas Napper delves into Jimmy’s life (played by Johnny Harris, who also wrote the screenplay). Napper and Harris have set out to tell a matter-of-fact story of a man who loses everything and tries to get his life back on track by looking in the wrong places. They do this simply and effectively. And, although the cast is all men, it was hard not to connect with Jimmy and engage in his story.
All of Jawbone‘s performances are incredibly strong. Johnny Harris is impressive as protagonist Jimmy McCabe. Harris strikes the right balance of determined and vulnerable, as if he is still that young teenage boxer who’s lost his way, and was utterly compelling. Ray Winstone as gym-owner Bill was a pleasure to watch also, as the angel on Jimmy’s shoulder. He had a graceful, lovable air about him, yet is harsh but fair: “if I find booze in here, you’re out.” The only real smiles we see from Jimmy is when he’s with Bill, and their scenes are genuinely heart-felt.
Michael Smiley as corner-man Eddie brings candor to the boxing gym and also delivers some my favourite lines: “he’s just a bully, surrounded by other bullies. I want you to break his heart.” And if Winstone’s Bill is the angel, the devil on Jimmy’s shoulder is the temptation to fight unlicensed for large amounts of money, and that temptation comes from Ian McShane as Joe. He’s brief but memorable, and still has one of the best voices in film today.
The boxing fighting and training sections are gripping drama. Forget “Gonna Fly Now”, Jawbone has it’s own unique soundtrack driving it forward, composed by legend Paul Weller. The fight footage is skilled and brilliant watching. There is movement as the camera sways with Jimmy; he’s not as in shape as his undefeated beast of an opponent, but will fight all the same. It’s here when you suddenly root for him, and slowly Eddie does too. Eddie’s growth from passive corner-man to supportive friend during the fight is truly moving. Jimmy finally has someone believe in him, which is, perhaps, all he ever needed.
Jimmy, Bill and Eddie’s stories are sometimes admirable ones, but we must also admire the men in real-life who put the time and energy into sports clubs like these. South East London is a place renowned for gang culture, and there are so many communities who use sport and, more specifically, boxing to pull boys off the streets, to nurture them so not be tempted to walk the wrong path.
Jawbone reminds us that even the hardest of men can be broken by life. It’s painfully frank and, at times, heart-breaking: Jawbone is definitely one I’d watch again.
Jawbone‘s premiere is screening at selected UK cinemas on 8th May. It’s official release is 12th May. Check out the trailer here: