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Jawbone - Review

Jawbone

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

GIVEN the emotional punch that many boxing dramas can deliver, it’s little wonder that so many stars down the years have turned to the genre to flex their acting muscles.

Yet while the likes of Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Jake Gyllenhaal have all done it in the prime of their careers, others have used it as a launch-pad to get them noticed, thereby applying the underdog motif so often used in ring-based dramas to their own situation.

The most notable of these was, of course, Sylvester Stallone, with the first Rocky. Now, Johnny Harris – an actor more commonly associated with psychotic roles in the likes of London To Brighton and This Is England ’86 – aims to make people think again about what he can deliver.

If Jawbone is anything to go by, it’s heavyweight drama of the richly absorbing kind. Penned by the actor himself, and based on some of his own experiences, Jawbone is the type of boxing story that Ken Loach might have delivered if he set his mind to it, albeit directed in a visual style (by Thomas Napper, with cinematography by Tat Radcliffe) that’s at times more reminiscent of Michael Mann.

Harris also takes the lead role of washed-up South London fighter Jimmy McCabe, a one-time junior champ turned alcoholic loner, who hasn’t boxed in years. As we meet him, he’s depressed and alone, struggling to come to terms with the loss of the only woman in his life: his mother. To make matters worse, he is about to be evicted.

Angry, addicted yet desperate for somewhere to go, Jimmy turns back to the ring and revisits former mentors and gym owners William (Ray Winstone) and Eddie (Michael Smiley) in the hope they will let him train. He then asks another former acquaintance, played by Ian McShane, to set up an unlicensed fight in the hope of getting a quick cash hit, no matter what the physical consequence to himself.

And so the scene is set for the underdog to rise. But while Jawbone does follow a lot of plot beats particular to the boxing genre, it does so in a raw, sincere manner. The stakes remain low-key and personal. Jimmy’s redemption, if you can even call it that, isn’t to be found in an unlikely title shot – but in survival, both in terms of the ring and his addiction.

Jawbone is as much about addiction as it is about boxing. Certainly, Jimmy takes a battering from both.

Harris, for his part, is richly compelling in the role: by turns frustrated and frustrating, yet someone to warm to and root for, so that by the time he reaches his showdown you will feel every blow.

There’s high-calibre support too. Winstone is very appealing as the hard but fair [and quietly caring] gym owner, while Smiley is typically strong – yet unshowy – in the role of Jimmy’s eventual trainer. And McShane gets one of the standout sequences over a steak dinner with Jimmy. You could call it Harris’s ode to the diner scene from Mann’s Heat, albeit with a different kind of relationship. It’s exquisitely shot, much like the final fight.

And this is where the full breadth of this particular labour of love shines through. If Harris has delivered a quietly stirring, emotionally honest script that provides plenty for his ensemble to rise to, then Napper and Radcliffe combine to make this an easy film to watch too. The juxtapositions between the squalid, lonely life of Jimmy and the luxury of modern London [seen, neon-lit, across the river] are beautifully realised, while the fight itself is raw, brutal and unflinching – almost animalistic in the way it employs some PoV shots.

Hence, while the basic framework of the Jawbone story hardly feels fresh, the execution from everyone involved makes it easy to overlook some of the more familiar elements. It’s a sobering film, in many ways, and a quietly impressive one throughout.

Harris deserves the most praise, however, and emerges as the film’s undisputed champion. It should be very interesting to see where he goes from here.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 91mins
UK Release Date: May 12, 2017