Over the next few weeks you may see Jawbone on the lower echelons of the DVD shelves at your local supermarket. It’s unlikely you’ll pay it much attention because of the cover art, which has a generic photoshop aesthetic that looks just a bit too much like some piddling revenge fantasy starring Vinnie Jones or Danny Dyer. A closer inspection, however, will reveal that top talent like Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Michael Smiley (Kill List) and Johnny Harris (London to Brighton) are attached to it, with Paul Weller providing the score. An even closer read of the cast list will show that Tat Radcliffe serves as cinematographer, who worked on ’71 and Pride. It’s rather odd, then, that Jawbone seems to have gone straight-to-DVD and accrued a paltry 278 votes on IMDb, because this is a quality piece of work.
Johnny Harris leads as Jimmy McCabe, a world-weary, washed up boxer whose spark of success as a young amateur boxer never materialised into a professional career. His life appears to consist of collapsing in his dismal flat after wandering the streets of central London with a bottle of vodka. His miserable existence becomes even more desperate when he is turfed out of his flat after many warnings from the council. This isn’t because of rent or debt; the brutalist building is due for destruction.
With no roof over his head, Jimmy is drawn to the gym where he found his talent under the tutelage of Bill Carney (Ray Winstone), who still presides over a pack of tough street kids. As Bill, Winstone growls in a thick East End accent and huffs corpulently as he bowls it around the gym with gruff masculinity – it’s just the kind of performance you’d expect. Despite Bill’s initial hostility toward the sheepish, cowed Jimmy, he allows him to train at the gym as long as he doesn’t turn up drunk. What he doesn’t know is that Jimmy’s also sneaking through the top window to sleep on the sofa.
With training and accommodation precariously secured, Jimmy arranges a meeting with Joe Padgett, a shadowy underworld figure with links to unlicensed boxing. Much like Winstone, Ian McShane delivers a performance that’s typical of his oeuvres. His charming veneer is mixed with piercing eye contact, a deep, gravelly voice and a general serpentine demeanour which suggests that he’s a nasty bastard that cannot be trusted. Again, like Winstone, his presence is all too brief.
These strong performances are complimented by the raw imagery of cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. His camera bobs and weaves amongst the individuals in his shots, often framing the subject with blurred figures in the foreground. This motion creates a realist quality that Radcliffe pairs with bleak natural light to produce an unvarnished aesthetic reminiscent of Nil by Mouth, Tyrannosaur, Fish Tank and other grim British dramas.
However, after impressing with the quality of its performances, dialogue and camera work, the narrative struggles as it rushes and contrives towards the inevitable fight. Firstly, *spoiler* Winstone’s character is killed off too quickly. We hardly know him or his relationship with Jimmy when Bill reveals he has cancer, or ‘the big ‘un’, as he calls it. Then there’s the scenes shared between Jimmy and Eddie, Bill’s Northern Irish protege and successor. It is Eddie’s initial benevolence that gives Jimmy the courage to walk through the gym doors, but in the latter half of the film Eddie is suddenly aggressive and disparaging. Yes, Bill’s death will stir negative emotions in him, but his abrupt shift in behaviour feels like an unconvincing and unnecessary drama that’s contrived to set up their reconciliation before the big fight, which is, I hasten to add, very impressive – one of the best.
It is expertly choreographed, with Shane and Barry McGuigan providing technical advice and Tat Radcliffe placing the camera at the heart of the brawl, giving it kinetic energy. Indeed, it is one of the most realistic boxing matches I’ve ever seen in a film; more so than Raging Bull, certainly. A bit of a slugfest, yes, but they do happen. However, the problem with fictional boxing matches is that no matter how much punishment the protagonist is taking, it’s usually only a matter of time until he lands a big combination that sends his opponent down.
Even if the fight had gone in a direction I had never expected, Jawbone would still be a flawed, familiar film that follows a well-trodden path. Johnny Harris depicts the troubled boxer stock character with subtlety and raw emotion, but his film needed detailed characterisation of every character, especially Winstone and McShane’s, to be a notch above average.
Dir: Thomas Q. Napper
Scr: Johnny Harris
Prd: Andrew Eaton, Michael Elliot, Johnny Harris, Richard Holmes, Donna Mabey
Cast: Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Michael Smiley
D.O.P: Tat Radcliffe
Music: Paul Weller
Run time: 91 minutes
Jawbone is available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD now.