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Knuckle – Film Review

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Knuckle - James Quinn McDonagh and David Nevin
Irish Traveller James Quinn McDonagh, about to win another feud-inspired fight in his family's name - this time against David Nevin © 2011 Rise Films Ltd & Seafield Films Ltd

This documentary about feud-inspired organized fistfights between members of Irish family clans known as the Travellers offers a fascinating look at that subculture’s tradition of settling grudges through illegal boxing matches.

Assembled from actual footage shot over 12 years by director/narrator Ian Palmer, the film centers on an unexpectedly thoughtful undefeated contender named James Quinn McDonagh. The bald and soft-spoken former construction worker, who resembles a more placid version of actor Vinnie Jones, admits his kin are no saints. But in the lingo of the families, he notes that “we have never sent for any fights,” only answered challenges.

The film’s apparent intent is to condemn the endless cycle of taunting insults that lead to bare-knuckle bouts whose outcomes inspire more taunting insults. But those carefully refereed, weapons-free and strictly one-on-one events end up looking almost civilized compared to the murderous violence that takes place between members of urban gangs, competing drug cartels and even belligerent nations. As James reasonably explains, “It’s the safest way to sort things out.”

Knuckle - Big Paul Joyce fights Michael Quinn McDonagh
Big Paul Joyce fights James' younger brother Michael Quinn McDonagh in an illegal match worth £120,000 © 2011 RISE Films Ltd & Seafield Films Ltd

One reason for the relative degree of restraint is because the fights occur between relatives. As several interview subjects point out, members of the McDonagh, Nevin, Joyce and other families have both blood and matrimonial ties dating back for generations. Hatred between them has become a kind of sporting habit, although the most recent flashpoint was a controversial 1992 incident of manslaughter outside a pub.

The video footage of competitions held in a country lane, a fenced outdoor enclosure and even a church parking lot are bloody, but nowhere near as savagely brutal as a typical “ultimate fighting” beatdown or even many legitimate boxing matches. No rest periods are allowed, and bouts only end with a knockout, a surrender or an agreement to call things a draw. That means fights can last as little as minutes or as long as hours, but none of the ones shown here are especially horrific.

The matches actually are more sad than sadistic, especially considering that children are sometimes present. Director Palmer transitions from intrigued outsider to excited fan to disgusted observer over the course of his dozen years documenting the fights. His personal low point comes when he realizes that he is “in the middle of a forest filming two grandfathers beating each other up.”

The movie’s big finale features James’ younger brother Michael in a hottest-day-of-summer rematch against Big Paul Joyce with £120,000 in family wagers at stake, if police don’t get wind of the illegal event.

The very heavy accents of nearly everyone onscreen make a lot of the dialog as indecipherable as whatever the heck Brad Pitt was saying when he played a boxing Traveller in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, so non-Irish audiences will be grateful for the movie’s subtitles. But what a reflective and exasperated James has to say about his own legacy as a fighter comes through loud and clear: “I’d rather be known for something more positive.”

[Rating: 3 stars]