Johnny Harris is a menacing but charismatic London actor who has made an impression in UK crime dramas, films like ‘London to Brighton’ and ‘Welcome to the Punch’, as well as TV in ‘The Fades’ and his BAFTA-nominated role of abusive father Mick in Shane Meadows’ ‘This Is England ’86-’90’ series. Now he has written, produced and starred in a boxing film, inspired by his experiences as an ABA teenage champion.
Harris plays Jimmy McCabe, a former boxing star brought low by alcoholism and depression. After his mum dies, Jimmy reaches crisis point and gym veterans Bill (Ray Winstone) and Eddie (Michael Smiley) coach him for one last redemptive fight. Ian McShane plays, inevitably, a smiling-yet-sinister kingpin who organises the kind of dodgy unlicensed bout that Jimmy is tempted to take for the money. This turns out to be an unlicensed contest in the North of England, where a baying audience regularly pays to see a local vicious bruiser (played by real-life MMA fighter Luke Smith) “beat the brains out” of a conveyor belt of lesser opponents.
Boxing as metaphor for internal battle is hardly new cinematic ground, but there are good reasons why these films (such as UK classics ‘Twenty Four Seven’ and ‘The Boxer’ as well as recent US fare like ‘South Paw’, ‘Bleed For This’, and ‘Hands of Stone’) choose to tread old ground. The damaged person inside the fighter offers limitless character possibilities and adversities to overcome. Also, there are few action sequences more brutally exciting than a well-filmed and choreographed boxing match.
As a team, Harris and first-time director Thomas Napper (who made his name as second unit director on several Joe Wright features and also helmed 2010 documentary ‘Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home’) nail the fight, but Jimmy’s issues begin to feel slightly token, modest in narrative scope. This is a grim, kitchen sink working-class British drama we’ve seen plenty of times before in the work of Meadows and Ken Loach. It helps that Napper has largely cast to type so there’s a character shorthand that exists to relieve the familiar story beats. Winstone is gruff, Smiley is likeable, McShane is sinister. No backstory necessary.
There’s much more to be said about Harris’ physical transformation into a man with the whippet-lean body of an athlete and the hollow, frightened eyes of an alcoholic. Boxing legend and Northern Ireland’s former world champion Barry McGuigan (who coached Daniel Day-Lewis for his role in 1997’s ‘The Boxer’) and his son, the trainer Shane McGuigan, served as consultants on the movie. Due to his intensive training regime, Harris is unrecognisable initially; his beardy everyman look sweated and shaved off to leave something hard and sinuous. But it’s noticeable that he is comfortable as a leading man, carrying a film. Harris deserves to be in more things.
There is only really one fight in ‘Jawbone’, right at the end, which Napper gives everything to. The end result is one of the best-looking boxing fight scenes committed to film.
There is only really one fight in ‘Jawbone’, right at the end, which Napper gives everything to. The final result is one of the best-looking boxing fight scenes committed to film. It’s not graceful but visceral, with crunchily edited from shots at every possible angle and distance by editor David Charap and sound mixer Jerome McCann. Johnny Harris and Luke Smith, to my eyes, land a lot of real (albeit pulled) punches on each other’s head and body.
The script shines when the unlicensed boxing match becomes a metaphor for Jimmy’s struggle against adversity, with Eddie urging him to “get off the ropes”, to stop “taking punishment you don’t need to be taking” and to “let the punches go”. It also contains the best line of dialogue in the film: “That wee lad’s a fucking bully and he’s surrounded by bullies as well. Now what I want you to do is go across that ring and break his fuckin’ heart, ye’ hear me?”
Paul Weller’s score is a little too muted but the inky cinematography from Tat Radcliffe (Yann Demange’s ’’71’) manages to do a lot with an obviously tiny budget (the film’s exteriors were shot in the same stretch of London that Harris still lives in).
‘Jawbone’ doesn’t reinvent the boxing genre and does tend to feel overly familiar, despite its screenplay being based on a personal story. This low-budget drama hinges on the ever-watchable trio of Winstone, Smiley and McShane, the incredible commitment of Johnny Harris’ performance and the crackling choreography of the film’s knockout final act.