Good Son, Great Doc
WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reviews "The Good Son."
WASHINGTON - For much of the 20th century, boxing rivaled baseball as the undisputed champ of American sports.
The "sweet science" sculpted robed heroes of mythic legend: Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard.
Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was next in line, a lightweight who earned his nickname with a flurry of punches; a matinee idol who appeared on countless magazine covers and drew the adulation of Frank Sinatra; a real-life Italian Stallion who thrived off the pop culture buzz of "Rocky" (1976). As Warren Zevon sang in a tribute song, "Hurry home early / hurry on home / Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon."
All that changed on Nov. 13, 1982, when the world watched a man die in the ring on live Saturday afternoon TV on CBS Sports. Mancini delivered a knockout blow to South Korea's Duk Koo Kim in the 14th round of their WBC Lightweight title fight at Caesars Palace in Vegas, but it proved to be a fatal blow, as Kim slipped into a coma and died four days later.
Sports Illustrated titled its next issue "Tragedy in the Ring." Boxing reduced its title fights from 15 rounds to 12. And the major networks retreated as broadcaster Howard Cosell denounced the sport two weeks later during a one-sided Larry Holmes fight, saying, "This kind of savagery doesn't deserve commentation ... I wonder if that referee is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?"
Adding to the tragedy, Kim's grief-stricken mother took her own life three months later. The fight's referee committed suicide a month after that. And Mancini fell into a deep depression when he learned Kim's fiancée, Lee Young- Mee, was pregnant with a son, Jiwan, who would never know his father.
The great thing about the new documentary "The Good Son: The Life of Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini" is that all of this tragedy is mere subtext to the actual heart of the film. At its core, it's a tale of fathers and sons, building to the moment Mancini meets Kim's fiancée and son for the first time.
In the ring, Mancini was always moving forward, and that's exactly the approach taken in the documentary. Director Jesse James Miller uses the tragic past merely to propel Mancini's future.
"We realized there was a sensitivity with Ray to having his whole life defined just by the Kim fight," said executive producer Chris Tavlarides, a D.C. native and president of Capitol Outdoor. He got his start interning for Circle Releasing under Ted and Jim Pedas, who discovered the Coen Brothers.
Writer Mark Kriegel, who also penned the biographies for Joe Namath and "Pistol" Pete Maravich, wrote the source novel in 2012 and agreed the documentary should take a much broader approach.
"Mark said it's important, that's one chapter of my life, but it's not the only chapter," Mancini said in an interview with WTOP, noting the fight doesn't come until 220 pages into a 336 page book. "He wanted to show how I wanted to be a fighter for my father."
The father-son theme pervades the entire movie. We watch nostalgically as Mancini grows up wanting to be like his dad, Lenny "Boom Boom" Mancini, who trained under Hall of Famer Ray Arcel, turned pro in 1937 and became the No. 1 contender for the lightweight crown before being drafted for World War II. He returned home with shrapnel and shattered championship dreams -- dreams that Ray would fulfill by knocking out Arturo Frias three minutes into the first round in May 1982.
Mancini appears proudest during a scene showing his father's boxing scrapbook, describing a photograph of his father's eye swollen shut as "beautiful."
Likewise, "The Good Son" is a visual scrapbook that Mancini can now leave behind for his own kids. The doc covers numerous subplots, from his roots in Youngstown, Ohio ("It's a big steel producing town, a city of immigrants, it helped shape who I am") to his relationship with his ill-fated brother, Lenny Jr. ("He hit harder, was a better boxer, but the one thing he lacked that I did have was discipline").
All these threads intertwine to paint a picture of a man with deep ties to the notion of "family."
"I'm proud of the title because of the connotation behind it and what it means for my relationship with my father, my relationship with my children and ultimately Jiwan with his father," Mancini said.
The Main Event
After all the build-up and various tales of the tape, the film's main event is a knockout. In the red corner: Mancini, a warmhearted warrior needing closure for a life he inadvertently took. In the blue corner: Kim's fiancée and son, seeking peace from the one man who can give it to them.
"For him to have tragically taken the life of a father, and now to meet that son, that's gotta be a real challenge for Ray," said Ed O'Neill ("Married with Children"), one of the many celebrities interviewed in the documentary, from Mickey Rourke to Sugar Ray Leonard.
The encounter was arranged specifically for the film, but Tavlarides said he and co-producer Jimmy Lynn didn't know whether the Kims would actually show. Their arrival was in part due to the comfort established during a shoot in Seoul, South Korea, interviewing Kim's family and trainer.
We watch as Mancini sits on his doorstep waiting for the Kims' black SUV to arrive, sharing in the anxiety of knowing his life will forever change. Here, the only "boom boom" is his racing heart.
"I was more nervous about meeting her than I was meeting him," Mancini tells WTOP. "Here's a young woman who was expecting to spend the rest of her life with a man who basically passed at my hand."
"When they told me about setting up the meeting, I said you got one shot to get this. Make sure you get it," Mancini said. "They had three cameras, so what you saw is what it was. I was nervous, had a lot of trepidation, but I wanted it to happen. When they pulled up, I didn't know what to expect."
The result exceeded Mancini's expectations. I dare viewers to suppress goosebumps as Mancini looks Jiwan in the eye and describes the eternal bond between the two fighters.
"I felt I knew him better than anybody, better than your mother, better than his best friend, because I knew what was in his heart," Mancini said, as Jiwan wipes a tear from under his glasses. "In the boxing ring, you may never see each other before, and you may never see each other after, but in those moments, you know each other better than anybody."
We'll never know how these intimate moments might have played if they were done off-camera.
But then, millions of viewers would never get to share in that intimacy, through the power of film.
"After a while, the camera's just like another friend in the room," Mancini said. "You've got to think of it that way."
The film is already picking up buzz, winning two Leo Awards for Best Director (Jesse James Miller) and Best Cinematographer (Ian Kerr), who shot the entire picture on a Red digital camera.
The final beach scene is fittingly cleansing.
"If you don't have an artist like Mark Kriegel being able to take the things that you tell him and make it come to life on the page, all you've got is air," Mancini said. "And if you don't have [a director] who can take those words and make it resonate with people, then you basically just got words on a page. So I was fortunate to work with two artists."
The one thing missing from the film is a moment that Sports Illustrated's Ralph Wiley called "one of the greatest physical feats I had ever witnessed." He was referring to the way Kim pulled himself up the ropes, literally as he was dying, already suffering from a subdural hematoma.
Instead, the film cuts from the knockout punch to Mancini's celebration, then back to Kim hunched in his corner, virtually cutting around Kim's courageous climb to his feet. Tavlarides says this wasn't an intentional choice; it's just the way the final cut came out. As Rocky said, "Cut me, Mick."
Still, if that's the one flaw in the documentary, that's a good problem to have.
"The project, the picture, it was a wonderful experience," Mancini said. "The film is as good as it's gonna get. I don't think it could get any better than that, how they did it. I'm so proud of it."
"The Good Son" makes its nationwide theatrical release Aug. 9, but Tavlarides says both a Washington, D.C. release and national television broadcast are still being hammered out.
My advice: don't wait. Rent the flick on Video On Demand or download it on iTunes for $9.99.
"From now on, if anybody asks me anything about that fight, I'll just say, 'Did you watch the film?'" Mancini said, laughing. "If they say no, I'll say, 'Watch the film.' You'll get all the answers you need."
Answers on so many levels, Ray.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
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