Thursday 11 May 2017

Punch-drunk: "Jawbone"

Jawbone is Boxing Story #1 - the same story, you'll recall, that served Rocky, as well as Warrior, Southpaw and Creed in recent times - but both its director, Thomas Napper, and its writer-star Johnny Harris are wise enough to have got in close to it. They sense, rightly, that getting right into the sinews of material thoroughly worked-out elsewhere will always allow an audience a better feel for the punches being taken and given, and encourage us to rise to our feet once again as the comeback arc nears its completion - for what all these films are actually about is spirit, or battling back from adversity, and you don't have to have pulled on a pair of gloves to understand that. Napper's film is the Austerity Britain variant: Harris's Jimmy McCabe is a boozy, down-on-his-luck slugger, dwarfed by the corporate towers and luxury-flat developments of his perma-drizzly part of South East London, who finds shelter in a local gym after being evicted from his late mam's council flat. 

That sense of place is crucial to the film's achievements, and to our exact grasp of where these characters have come from. Napper and Harris are genuinely fascinated by the way these people inhabit these spaces, and what it might tell us about them; the result of this fascination is that Jimmy's never just some vector on a narrative graph, pointed towards redemption. It remains a peculiarity that, as London has become less and less affordable to all but the moneyed few, it's become a haven for indie filmmakers poking their noses into its grimier nooks and crannies, and demonstrating just how little of that money has trickled down to street level. In several points, Jawbone looks to be taking place around the ruins of that Cool Britannia gangster cycle that flashed its cash at the fag-end of the last millennium - back when we never knew we 'ad it so good, or so large - and the clash between old and new worlds is only punched up by the presence of several seasoned troupers.

Ray Winstone, old Sexy Beast himself, appears entirely at home as the gym's beleaguered owner; the ever-dependable Michael Smiley is on aptly combative form as the cornerman who calls Jimmy on his pisshead self-pity; while Winstone's 44 Inch Chest stablemate Ian McShane turns up as a shady promoter offering our boy off-the-books cash, nailing this wideboy's mix of shark-eyed business savvy and avuncular concern for his charge. It is, though, mostly Harris, recognisable as the heavy-in-chief of Paul Andrew Williams' very fine London to Brighton but still best known as the abusive stepfather doing such vile things to poor Vicky McClure in TV's This is England. Some of that same rage is in evidence here, but it's most often turned inwards: what we see in Jimmy is a man whose confidence has been badly shaken or just plain shattered entirely, a sorry state of affairs most evident in his nervy speech patterns, or his pre-emptive insistence he hasn't the money to pay for the steak McShane orders for him. When he smiles in the middle of one conversation with Winstone, it's clearly the first time this man has allowed himself to relax in years.
Around him, Napper pointedly pivots away from the posturing, hyper-choreographed action of such Hollywood fare as Southpaw and Creed: when Jimmy eventually takes a step back in the ring, it's just another in a long line of fights, a scrap for some semblance of respect or recognition. Yet this director, making a very impressive debut, also knows when to get in there and mix things up, not least in the final slugfest, conducted not in front of the bazillionaires who make up the front row of HBO's pay-per-view spectacles at Madison Square Garden, rather in the cramped back room of some tumbledown boozer, before an ugly, baying mob broadly as antipathetic to his cause as the Fates - which, of course, makes his participation all the more make or break. "You're here to work," stresses Smiley's cutman as he straps on the sparring pads, and while it's no prize fighter, this plucky, grafting, thoughtful indie does exactly that, coming through with a victory on points - a modicum of respite, for both hero and audience alike - which somehow proves all the more resounding for it.

Jawbone opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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