The Good Son: Film Review

Sports doc benefits from a highly sympathetic subject and deep emotional pull.

Jesse James Miller digs into the story that wouldn't leave boxer Ray Mancini alone.

In The Good Son, documentarian Jesse James Miller benefits from a true story so perfect a Hollywood screenwriter might worry he was laying things on too thick: Born to a boxer whose promising career was cut short by wounds incurred defending his country, Ray Mancini adopted his pop's nickname "Boom Boom" and made it his life's mission to win the world championship for him. Then, at the height of his fame, a tragedy in the ring both made him a pariah and left a child on the other side of the world to be haunted by his own father's shattered legacy. A compelling tale even for viewers with no interest in the sweet science, the film should make a respectable showing in limited theatrical bookings and would be a winner on ESPN or HBO.

Though now in his early fifties, Ray projects a little-boy innocence in describing his love for father Lenny, who had been a contender for the lightweight title before being drafted in WWII. Lenny's boxing career was already dead when Ray was born, but the boy grew up treasuring his dad's scrapbook: A post-fight pic of the badly bruised fighter represented Ray's ideal of a father who "had no fear."

Before he even started school, the boy knew he would be a boxer; friends from Youngstown, Ohio (including actor Ed O'Neill) recall a kid of astonishing single-mindedness who mightn't have been as gifted a fighter as his brother Lenny Jr., but wanted it so much there was really no contest.

Mark Kriegel, whose book about Mancini was the basis for the film, does a good job setting the stage for this family drama. Located between two mob-ruled cities, Youngstown was a dangerous place where legit employment was scarce. The milieu makes Mancini's quick success even more inspiring, and explains the extent to which townsfolk identified with him even as he entered the world of celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra.

Before its midpoint, though, the film puts this local-boy-done-good narrative aside to focus on Duk Koo Kim, a Korean boxer whose origins were equally dramatic. Miller spends lots of time discussing Kim's impoverished childhood, then introduces us to his wife and the son who was still unborn when he tried to take the world lightweight title from Mancini in 1982.

Miller shows us just enough of that intense bout to establish that, whatever one thinks about the merits of boxing as a sport, Kim's death (days after being knocked out in the 14th round) was the result not of mercilessness on Mancini's part but of the refusal to quit that both men shared. Still, Mancini's attempt to put the tragedy behind him and continue his career were always overshadowed by references to his having killed an opponent.

Most sports fans will want more coverage of Mancini's post-1982 career than they get here, but given the material it's easy to understand the direction Miller takes: After drawing out the similarities between Mancini and Kim, the film arranges for the latter's now-grown son to meet Mancini for the first time. Though the encounter, held at Mancini's home, is presented a little too neatly in line with therapeutic cliches of closure and healing, it is surely something both parties needed, and The Good Son uses it to wipe some of the tarnish off one of boxing's most famous careers.

Production Company: St. Sophia

Director: Jesse James Miller

Producers: Mark Kreigel, Jesse James Miller

Executive producers: Christopher Tavlarides, Jimmy Lynn

Director of photography: Ian Kerr

Music: Schaun Tozer

Editor: Charlie Renfrew

No rating, 88 minutes