From the outset, the audio and visual components of "The Good Son," a documentary about Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, are bracing. Here we have the story of a working class Youngstown, Ohio hero, and the soundtrack is smooth brass with spacey hip-hop beats like you'd encounter in a lower Manhattan lounge on a Thursday night, rather than, say, Bruce Springsteen. The cinematography is just as smooth: Certain transitional segments resemble title cards from a Wes Anderson film, nothing like the grainy, jumpy analog footage I associate with Mancini from catching many of his fights on ESPN Classic, having not experienced him in real time in the 1980s.
But shortly into the documentary, director Jesse James Miller delivers an "a-ha" moment that brings the smooth and the rough together. Mancini, describing why he got into boxing, talks about a picture of his father where he is swollen and cut after a boxing match, and calls it "the most beautiful picture I have of him." Yes, yes, this is the "brutal ballet" or "sweet science" of boxing, neatly encapsulated in a filmmaking choice.
The distraction of the disparate now understood, one's attention can turn to the subject matter. And "The Good Son," drawing source material from the book of the same name by Mark Kriegel, is a deeply affecting film. It is not a Mancini career retrospective, per se, although you will probably have a better understanding of who he was as a fighter and cultural phenomenon, however loose that understanding is, with certain keystone fights excised from the film. it is, more, a meditation on father-son relations, told through the prism of the sport of boxing. It has a tragedy at its center — the ring death of Du-Koo Kim at the hands of Mancini. But it is something of a blameless tragedy, a noble one, if that's possible, which makes the emotional core of the film all the more affecting, and aligns, to an extent, with the contradictory nature of the director's audio-visual choices.
This is a boxing film that a non-boxing fan can be absorbed by. That's not entirely uncommon to boxing films, but sometimes the dynamic is skewed more toward one audience than the other. It has enough boxing in it to make boxing fans care and is about more than boxing enough to make non-boxing fans care.
You should be cautioned, if you are a dude with a complicated relationship with your father — to be less redundant, "if you are dude" — that the waterworks might flow. Mancini's surprisingly good poem about his own father is just the start. When Mancini meets the son of Kim, gird your tear ducts. The grace of both men, one older and the other younger, who have more in common with each other by C.V. than they do with their own influential dads (Mancini's father fought for economic reasons, as did Kim; the sons were drawn into boxing for other reasons), is touching. The entire film is about the circle of becoming who you are because of your father, either by trying to be like him or by living the life a man does because of what the father gave him.
The entryway into that topic is the boxing career of Mancini and specifically, his fight with Kim. When I saw that Mancini was an executive producer on the film, I was worried, based on Floyd Mayweather's hagiographic Showtime documentary footage where he served as an executive producer. Would the negatives of Mancini be glossed over? Granted, the material that could be glossed over about Mancini's personal life was limited — there was no lengthy rap sheet to rectify. But the Kim fight is inexorably linked to Mancini's legacy. The fact remains that, through no fault of his own, Mancini killed a man, and in turn that man's mother and the referee from that night killed themselves. Commendably, Mancini and the film address the topic unflinchingly. If anything, it does it almost too directly. You can pick up from Mancini's story as laid out that there is a sad irony about how a guy who exhibited all that made boxing great became so intertwined with an event that helped bring the sport to a low ebb. And then Kriegel just comes out and says it in an interview spliced throughout the film.
The complaints, however, are few. "The Good Son" is a beautiful film about, in part, an ugly thing. It imbues in that ugly thing a kind of dignity and emotional satisfaction, somehow. Mancini eventually came to terms with this, as he explains when describing his return to the sport after the Kim death. "But it's an honorable sport," he tells the cameras.
("The Good Son" was released July 16 on cable-on-demand and iTunes, and will be released theatrically August 9. Watch the trailer here. TQBR was provided access to a review copy of the film.)