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Movie review: 'Knuckle'

The tradition of bare-fisted fighting among Irish clans is the focus of Ian Palmer's first feature-length documentary.

December 09, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • James Mc Donagh, left, and David Nevin in action in "Knuckle."
James Mc Donagh, left, and David Nevin in action in "Knuckle." (Gary Ashe, Allpix/Arc Entertainment )

Everything about "Knuckle" is raw — the bloody, bare-fisted boxing it portrays, the hand-held footage it employs and the unrestrained passion of director Ian Palmer in his first feature-length documentary.

The film is very much like a home movie in trying to tell its story of families and feuds complete with the bad lighting, bad camera angles and meandering observations. Though you will wish for more polish and insight, its unruly action is hard to resist.

The world that the filmmaker admits sucked him in and overwhelmed him, centers around long-running disputes between Ireland's once nomadic clans, called the Travellers, and the boxing matches they devised as a way to settle scores. The fights themselves, called Fair Fights, theoretically follow boxing's basic rules. Reality is another matter and the referees have their work cut out for them.

Usually held in isolated spots around the Irish countryside — the better to avoid the authorities who try to shut them down and the extended families too eager to pile on — there is none of the elegance or strategy of sanctioned boxing circuits. This is knuckle against skin and it turns a face into a bloody mess in a matter of minutes and makes the film very brutal watching. The swings are wild, the footwork nonexistent, and the boxers themselves often badly mismatched in terms of size, age and experience. The fighters' primary strategy seems to hinge on survival and not embarrassing the clan, which means seeing how far bravado will take you.

Palmer first got entry into this underground scene in 1997, when he videotaped a wedding and met some of the Quinn McDonagh clan and its fighting brothers James, Paddy and Michael. When they asked him to shoot one of their fights, he had no intention of making a documentary. Though the filmmaker weaves in the stories of other clans — including the Nevins and the Joyces (Paddy "The Lurcher" Joyce figures in heavily) — James is the face that emerged the most when he began sorting through 12 years of tapes.

By the time Palmer picks up the story, the Travellers have mostly settled in small tight communities around Ireland. Most are related in some way, the clans having mixed as often as they've mixed it up, and it is almost comical to hear the family tree of the fighters — a complex litany of cousins and cross-clan marriages.

In YouTube fashion, challenges are issued via videotapes now. The challenges, like the fights, have a barroom, name-calling quality. Sometimes there's money riding on the outcome of a fight, but mostly it appears to be wounded pride that is on the line.

James, who trains for months before a match, is the most articulate in trying to explain the reasons for the fights, his inability to walk away from a challenge, as well as his hopes the families can some day get beyond them. The few women Palmer catches on tape also hope for an end to the bloody face offs.

The fights themselves are intercut with interviews as Palmer keeps circling around the why's. There's far more emotion than logic at work in their answers as family members try to remember exactly what sparked the feuds. (In a smart move, the heavy brogue is subtitled). Where Palmer succeeds is in capturing the unresolved rage which surfaces again and again — it's as bruising and brutal as any punch.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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