With the resurgence in boxing films over the last couple of years, sparked by the return of the Rocky franchise with Creed, we’ve also seen Southpaw, Hands of Stone and Bleed For This. By now we are familiar with the redemption arcs and comeback stories, so much so it’s become a breeze predicting the plot points and action beats when watching a boxing flick. However director Thomas Napper certainly makes an attempt for originality with his debut feature Jawbone. Written by and starring Johnny Harris, Jawbone is a contemporary, gritty, British boxing drama, and whilst you’d be right not to feel blown away by this film; it should in no way be overlooked.

Jawbone follows the story of Jimmy McCabe (Harris), who has hit rock bottom after the death of his mother, struggling with alcoholism and homelessness. Unable to regain control of his life he seeks out his old boxing club, run by coach Bill (Ray Winstone) and corner-man Eddie (Michael Smiley). Rather reluctantly they accept him back, Bill threatening that if he finds “one bottle of booze in here” Jimmy will be out on the streets again. Despite Bill’s disapproval, Jimmy is in desperate need for quick cash, and makes a deal with ambiguous mobster type Joe Padgett (Ian McShane), to compete in a shady, unlicensed (and illegal) fight. In no fit state to take on an opponent, Jimmy must battle to stay sober and earn the trust of his coaching team in time for his final bout.

This is a solid film making achievement for Harris and Napper. They’ve successfully tackled the story with an original angle whilst still playing tribute to the conventions of the boxing narrative. Training montages, father figures, addiction – all the themes are present, only they are approached from a darker tone than other films of it’s genre. Jawbone becomes a story of our protagonist hitting rock bottom, but instead of watching his redemption arc, we watch his fight for survival. 

This isn’t a love letter to the sport, nor is it Jimmy’s goal to be a champion fighter. These lowered stakes are incredibly effective, because we know he doesn’t have to be the best fighter, he just has to be good enough to survive. As a result the boxing plays secondary to the drama, used as a catalyst for Jimmy to relive his youth and attempt to regain some control and purpose in his life. All this gives a clear and strong understanding of why he’s fighting and grounds his goals into something that the audience can sympathise with.

The film’s bleaker tones stem from clear influences of Ken Loach, in it’s themes of disenfranchisement and the working class struggle. Jawbone’s opening sequence, coincidently, resembles the job centre scene from I, Daniel Blake, where Jimmy makes a scene to the council over his eviction from his housing block. These bleak tones carry over into the boxing. Rather than seeing Jimmy excel in his training we repeatedly see him on the ropes taking the beatings – a somewhat heavy handed, literal metaphor for “life having him on the ropes”. However his lack of improvement succeeds to create more jeopardy as time closes in on his fight, and as we become more aware that his opponent is a young, deadly defending champ, whilst Jimmy can barely skip five mins without vomiting. Any moment of achievement for our protagonist is underlined with a sense of struggle, sacrifice and reminder that his successes ultimately feel minor within a society that is rigged against the poor and mentally unstable, like himself.

All round strong performances from Harris, Winstone, McShane and Smiley, yet Harris dominates the screen time too much for the rest of the cast to make lasting impressions with their characters. McShane most of all with his role; a compelling performance as ever but whose appearance is disappointingly short and whose character feels grossly under-used.

Visually, Jawbone is standard yet suitable; with the cinematography favouring gritty handheld shots and intrusive close ups, nicely alluded to by Winstone’s line when he’s training his junior boxers: “When you look in his eyes you can see all of him”. The camera takes his advice; lingering on Jimmy’s eyes and allowing the audience empathy for his character. A note must be said about the final fight sequence where there’s an air of Guy Ritchie in the fuzzy, warped and disorientated shots. It feels as if the camera is vibrating, and it really creates the sensation that you’re taking the knocks alongside the protagonist. This unfortunately is the only experimental camerawork throughout the film, which makes us question it’s consistency and wonder whether this script would have been elevated in the hands of a more visually stylistic director.

All in all, Jawbone is a well made film. It’s refreshing to see a boxing movie reposition the conventional redemption story, and it’s tone marries very well with the themes. As a film it falls short of anything spectacular, but within it’s genre, Jawbone is a strong contender. An “upper”-cut above the rest, should I say… Or maybe I shouldn’t.

Jawbone is released on May 12th.