Fighters / Real Money Review
Whilst boxing movies have always been rife – from Gentleman Jim to Ali, Rocky to Raging Bull - documentaries on the subject have been considerable sparse. Since Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings met with acclaim in the mid-nineties only two have gained theatrical releases in the UK, both on limited runs: a reissue of William Klein’s Muhammed Ali: The Greatest and Blue Blood, concerning itself with the Oxbridge amateur contest. (James Toback’s film on Mike Tyson is due soon.) Furthermore, were you to ask someone to name a boxing doc then only Gast’s, and possibly Klein’s, would be the likely response. In other words the grassroots level remains practically unknown which is where Ron Peck’s Fighters comes in. He admits himself – in both the film’s voice-over and the discs’ booklet notes – that his knowledge was once hung entirely on Rocky, Raging Bull and sweaty film noirs, yet his intrigue as to who these fighters were and why they fought first led him to local bouts and eventually to this documentary. As with his earlier non-fiction piece Strip Jack Naked (a dual account of both his own homosexuality and the making of his 1978 feature Nighthawks to which it provides a companion-cum-sequel) this is very much a personal film, an authored film in fact, and his gradual introduction into this largely unseen world makes it the perfect introduction for us too.
To give some sense of just how far Peck went, it’s worth noting that Fighters was once mooted as a six- to eight-part series for its financier Channel 4. The eventual running time, edited down from hours upon hours of footage, was just below the two-hour mark and needless to say it’s an incredibly rich work. Given the scarcity of boxing docs on the smaller end of the spectrum (as opposed to the superstars of Ali and Tyson) Peck could have taken the easy route, i.e. a sketchier, less detailed portrait, and still ended up with a fascinating document. Yet by working on this project for so long and getting to know the participants so well, he was able to gain a remarkable level of access: boxers are interviewed at ease in their homes on their sofas; cameras enter the dressing room for the pre-fight warm-up; and so on. Fighters is structured in such a way that we begin within a mad scramble of images as we enter the gym for the first time, struggling to understand, and close with a series of bouts, the only ones we’ll witness, however partially, throughout the entire film. But it’s this access, this insight, which forms the meat and allows us to get from the one to the other, to understand, to answer Peck’s who and why questions.
The primary settings are West Ham Boys Club (described at one point as “the most successful in Britain”) and Royal Oaks, both in the London East End. Through trainer Jimmy Tibbs we get to know the various boxers (his own son Mark, the Rowland brothers, Bradley Stone, Mark Kaylor, etc.) and through these boxers we pick up on the lifestyles and the drive which has taken them to this point. Their expression may not always be eloquent but you sense the gamble they take each time they enter the ring, the environment which has bred their passion in their chosen sport (“no jobs ’round here”), the honour, in their eyes, of being a boxer (“it’s all down to number one”) and the factoring element of money, more so perhaps than success. Peck’s standpoint is one of celebration for these fighters – “I love fighters and I need fighters,” he intones early on, concluding later with “touch a boxer and you touch a saint” – but this is no bad thing. Fighters, as with Nighthawks, isn’t the definitive film on its subject and doesn’t set out to be. It merely wants to get inside this world and understand what makes it tick, not to consider (and cover) all of the angles. As said, this is a personal film for Peck, as much his as it is the boxers’, and had it not been this way then surely the access would have been diminished, the honesty on display possibly reduced to clichés. There would be no sense of heartbreak as Mark Kaylor’s initial comeback attempt, at a personal cost of £7,000, falls through or no introduction to the charismatic figure of the then recently retired Jimmy Flint and his edgy, self-deprecating words: “champion of nothing”.
Peck further stamps his mark with artful black and white touches, a soundtrack that’s more soundscape, and brief dramatised moments in which his various boxers improvise domestic scenes. The tiny room from The Set-Up (Robert Wise’s 1948 noir starring Robert Ryan) is recreated and used as a means of connecting Peck’s subjects with the cinematic world that first introduced him to the sport – as though he’s, in a way, trying to possess them. The fact that such concerns arise in an otherwise ‘straight’ documentary perhaps suggests these devices are misplaced, and certainly they remain Fighters’ weakest link, less memorable than, say, those highly charged pre-fight sequences or the recollections of loved ones as they describe how they cope once bouts are underway. Yet without them Peck may never have hit upon the idea for the accompanying feature, Real Money, which is all improvisation but still manages to get under the skin of this world and those who participate.
The majority of those featured in Fighters reappear in Real Money, mostly playing variations of themselves. (Bradley Stone participated in early workshops but tragically killed in a fight in 1994 at the age of only 23; Real Money is dedicated to his memory.) Thus Jimmy Tibbs is the paternalistic trainer, Mark Tibbs his promising son, Mark Kaylor the retired boxer looking for a comeback, and so on. It’s a technique that has run through British cinema from the wartime efforts of the Crown Film Unit to Shane Meadows’ earliest works via those of the Amber Collective, and it lends the picture a terrific authenticity. Peck may, at times, be left in the hands of his inexperienced cast’s improv skills, but the overall standard is high and it’s the rawness they bring to the project which draws the viewer in.
Indeed, the narrative is fairly rudimentary, concerning itself with the gangland influence on Tibbs’ young fighters, personified by Jimmy Flint’s drug dealing gangster-type, and the “real money” it can provide them at an obvious cost. In the discs’ accompanying interview with the director Peck notes how he screened Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria for his cast in the preparation stages, and it’s clear how the influence had rubbed off. As with those films, Real Money is a kind of ‘banal’ gangster movie (though it was made for television with additional input from the BFI) unconcerned with the excesses of De Palma’s Scarface, say, or the glut of British films which followed in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels wake. It couldn’t be further from the comic book inanities of Guy Ritchie’s banter and situations, rather it takes you closer to the realities with cast members drawing on their own experiences thus supplying dialogue and rhythms you can taste and relate to. The decision to capture the film with lightweight Hi-8 cameras – a precursor to the edgy DV productions of today – and the televisual (in other words, uncinematic) style also aids this immensely. The close-ups do just that, keeping us near the characters so that we can practically feel the emotions and menace they’re tapping into. But we’re not talking histrionics here – what you remember is the tremendous heart at the centre of Real Money, embodied by Tibbs’ excellent performance.
Furthermore, the two films compliment each other especially well. Both were initially issued on VHS by the BFI roughly ten years ago as individual releases, yet they have to be seen as a pair hence this two-disc edition. Fighters bleeds into Real Money and vice versa, the insight afforded by the first adding to the richness of characterisation in the second, whilst the improvisation brings out elements you always sensed were there thus reinforcing that insight further. Indeed, you come away from both films with the feeling that you really have gotten to know these people, what brought them into boxing and what makes them tick – all the things Peck set out to do.
Both Fighters and Real Money were made utilising videotape as opposed to film – the Sony EVO-9100P Hi-8, Peck informs us – once cutting edge but now, understandably, greatly surpassed. What we have then are films which show their age not through any signs or damage or wear but on a purely technological basis, and this has to be taken into account when considering the image quality. Of course this makes it difficult to assess the discs themselves, though it would seem more than likely that any ‘flaws’ are inherent in the original format. Issues such as clarity and contrast therefore are not always perfect, in either film, but we are getting the films as they would have appeared during their initial television screenings, better in fact considering the limitations in analogue transmission at the time. As for concerns as original aspect and soundtrack, all have been adhered to (1.33:1 and stereo in both cases), the latter having been restored – clearly a much easier job than attempting to ‘clean up’ the image; after all it would only diminish Hi-8’s distinctive qualities. (Note also that subtitles, hard of hearing or otherwise, are not available.)
As for extras, this double-disc set comes packed. The films have a disc each and the special features are arranged accordingly. Fighters has a gallery of production stills, a newly created trailer and a 68-minute piece entitled Night of the Fight. Billed as a documentary on the packaging, this isn’t quite the case. Rather this newly put together featurette is effectively the uncut rushes of the pre-fight dressing room sequence which provides Fighters with its final act. Interestingly the opening titles explain that the finished film utilised footage from five separate occasions, though clearly the bulk was taken from this material. Without the accompanying build-up or soundtrack its effects may be a little diminished. But its almost real-time nature contains its own tensions and insights making this a worthwhile addition.
Real Money similarly comes with photo gallery, and plentiful besides. Ron Peck offers a newly recorded interview (totalling 17 minutes) in which he discusses the improvisatory methods used in the film (note that this piece comes on the Real Money and as such Fighters is scarcely mentioned), the advantages of videotape (plus acknowledgement of subsequent technological advances) and his unrealised Gangster follow-up. Peck discussed this potential feature at length in the accompanying booklet (16-pages worth also finding room for reprints of the late Harry Mullins’ notes for those original BFI tapes and full credits), but essentially it was to build on the gangland elements from Real Money only for Lock, Stock… to come along and ruin things. Nevertheless it did reach the development stage and 27-minutes worth of workshop footage (using the same actors as Real Money), consisting of nine test scenes and contextualising titles, finds a place on the disc. Real Money also gets similar treatment with 22-minutes made up of six improvisations. Comparing them to the finished article demonstrates just how difficult it would be to assess Gangster’s true potential – relaxed actors in a relaxed setting as opposed to authentic location and properly tuned-in performances – but it’s an intriguing glimpse nonetheless. Plus given the rawness of Real Money it’s clear that this feature, had it been realised, would easily have trounced that one loosely improvised gangster movie that did get made, the self-indulgent and frankly awful Love, Honour & Obey.