There are two kinds of boxing movies — sagas like Rocky, in which a palooka overcomes the odds, wins the belt, gets the girl and pounds his evil opponent into jelly-doughnut filling. The other kind is like Raging Bull, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Body and Soul and The Set-Up, in which a poor sap is exploited by the evil boxing syndicate, experiences total humiliation and degradation, then perhaps dies a miserable death.
The latter speaks of the sport’s brutality and its exploitation of those from disadvantaged backgrounds — after all, how many boxing films are about fighters who had to choose between the ring or an engineering career?
On the other hand, Rocky and its ilk don’t give a flip about the sport’s morality. To them, boxing is brutal, all right, but their shared ethos is that there’s nothing like a good whuppin’ to set things right. No questions asked. Boom, boom, out go the lights.
In Rocky-like films, the ultimate match, which is the movie’s predictable climax, pits the hero against a slime-bag opponent. He’s so evil and greasy we’d all like to step into the ring and take turns giving him a kicking…or perhaps I’m projecting here. The outcome of the bout will settle all scores, and of course we know who’s going to come out on top. It’s the “let’s appeal to a broad audience” take on the sport, or more to the point, it reassures its audience that it’s all right to avoid thinking too hard. Hero good, villain bad.
“…a kid from the wrong side of the trailer park, abused and abandoned by his alcoholic father.”
Like westerns, boxing movies are an out-of-fashion genre that once had wide appeal. Many on-screen duels these days involve outlandish weaponry, superpowers and other amped up antics that bend reality in a way that appeals to younger audiences. They don’t come close to depicting the sweaty, urban pugilistic dramas that used to roll off the Hollywood assembly line with regularity. So it’s noteworthy when a film takes a swing at this all-but-lost subject matter.
Glass Jaw is one such movie with its feet firmly planted in Rocky territory. Travis (Lee Kholafai), a kid from the wrong side of the trailer park, is abused and ultimately abandoned by his alcoholic father. Flash forward to Travis, the world’s light-heavyweight champion. He’s at the top of his game until a friend’s daughter overdoses at a party in his home. Although he had nothing to do with the unfortunate incident, Travis, in a guilt-induced masochistic act, pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter and goes to prison. It’s a move reminiscent, in a way, of Jake Lamotta passively absorbing Sugar Ray Robinson’s blows in Raging Bull.
Glass Jaw uses many of the genre’s well-worn tropes, including the cranky fight promoter, the trainer with a heart of gold and the ambivalent girlfriend. It also features a hero who does time in big-boy prison, and tries his hand at underground bare-knuckle fighting, a thread that seems destined to become a major plot point but never goes anywhere.
“…entertaining, although predictable.”
One puzzling aspect is the film’s title. Not one of the fighters has a glass jaw, lingo for one who can’t take a punch, so it may have been intended as a metaphor. But I’m at a loss to say what exactly it means. Is Travis’s sense of decency and his resulting self-flagellation his glass jaw?
Otherwise, Glass Jaw consistently spells itself out in no uncertain terms, often with dialog that’s too on-the-nose to be true. When we flash forward from Travis’ childhood to his boxing career, a trainer heavy handedly sets the scene for us. “We’re here at the big fight, Travis. You worked your tail off for it,” he says. A more sure-footed script would have shown us what’s going on instead of blabbing the details in trite dialog.
Yet, boxing film fans may find Glass Jaw entertaining, although predictable. That’s not necessarily a mark against it, at least as far as the fans are concerned. Predictability is what many seem to crave. After all, no one paid to see Rocky lose the fight. But the trick is to be predictable yet surprising. And that’s a one-two punch combination that Glass Jaw hasn’t quite mastered.
Glass Jaw (2018) Directed by Jeff Celentano. Written by Brandon Espy, Lee Kholafai, Korrina Rico, Michael Testa. Starring Lee Kholafai, Jon Gries, Mark Rolston, Jaime Camil, Korrina Rico, Steven Williams, Reynaldo Gallegos, Brandon Sklenar.
4 out of 10 Rope-a-Dopes