Just when you think the boxing movie is beyond reinvention, along comes Jawbone to give the genre a meat-punching, raw-egg-drinking workout up and down the museum steps.
Former teen boxing champion Johnny Harris, the star of This Is England and London to Brighton, wrote and stars in this semi-autobiographical tale about an old pugilist getting ready for one last fight.
It could be the plot of, well, any sporting underdog movie. But Jawbone exists on the same mean streets as Nil By Mouth, I, Daniel Blake or the hardcore kitchen-sink milieu of the late Alan Clarke.
Jimmy (Harris) is an alcoholic fighter who, having hit rock bottom, lost his home, and come to blows at a local government office, returns to his childhood boxing club run by gym owner Bill (Ray Winstone) and cornerman Eddie (Michael Smiley). Jimmy can train there provided he stays off the booze, a struggle that is almost as bruising as anything he’ll experience in the ring. Almost.
Jimmy doesn’t say much – it’s often left to Paul Weller’s score to convey his inner turmoil – but he’s genuinely determined to make a fresh start. If only he could get off the streets. To this end he visits a gentleman-villain (Ian McShane) seeking an illegal bout and the purse that comes with it.
There’s a strong Irish contingent attached to this wonderfully raw film. The ever-wonderful Michael Smiley does the honours onscreen; while behind the scenes, Daniel Day-Lewis provided notes on the script and Barry and Shane McGuigan prepared Harris for the fight scenes. Their expertise shows in every second of the crunching choreography.
This is not the ravishing monochrome of Raging Bull. This is the small-time, replete with unforgiving glare and hostile punters. Away from the ring, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe often works in the dark, where Harris's Jimmy exists as a lonely runner and rough sleeper.
A cleverly minimal screenplay, the restrained direction of first-time helmer Thomas Napper, and nuanced performances from Harris, Winstone, Smiley and McShane allow for just the tiniest of chinks in the butchest of facades.
Get in, Jawbone.