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TANGLED UP IN BLUE
FILM REVIEW – BLUE BLOOD
By Martin Hall
The Sweet Science has a new Professor. He doesn’t look or sound like a scholar and he deals in more robustly direct methods than any academic. He’s less Descartes and Diogenes; more D’Amato and Dundee. Everything this man has learned is from the School of Hard Knocks with further knowledge gained from the University of Life.
As coach of the Oxford University boxing team in Stevan Riley’s documentary Blue Blood, Des Brackett is perhaps the central character in this outstanding 2006 film following the fortunes of five Oxford scholars in their pursuit of gaining a Blue.
Sporting rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge’s Universities is predominantly expressed on the River Thames or at Twickenham as the rowing and rugby teams respectively go head-to-head. However the boxing match between the two Universities began in the 1860s and is recognised as the oldest amateur boxing contest in the world. The documentary looks at the fate of five contenders who all want to become part of that lineage.
Fred is undoubtedly the group’s most natural boxer and angriest young man – frustration at his father’s absence combined with being written off his whole life; Justin is the uber-confident American astro-physicist who talks of ‘living big’ and skydives for the buzz; Charlie, the Fine Art student for whom the finest things in life come in female form; Boiler, who tries to overcome his self-doubt with his courage and heart the size of a town; and Kavanagh, the philosopher whose constant analysis may lead to the paralysis of not achieving his goal.
Brackett is just as fascinating as any of them. When he talks of the boxing ring as his “domain” he’s absolutely serious – from a family of boxers, Brackett fought 170 amateur bouts and represented his country. The transition to trainer was a natural one and his enthusiasm and compassion shines through. “A good boxer,” wrote Norman Mailer, “is an artist.” So is a good trainer.
One of Riley’s greatest achievements with this film is to make the viewer empathise with and then root for five lads who would otherwise be lazily dismissed as bad student whoppers. By allowing them to reveal their personalities (and nowhere is personality more readily revealed than a boxing ring) we get a sense of their motivations.
And it’s their motivations that fascinate. The standard boxing story, fictional or otherwise, goes something like this: a young boy is dragged up in poverty so far on the wrong side of the tracks he can’t even see the railway line. After committing crimes in his youth he takes up boxing to channel his aggression. This gives him focus and he pursues his dream of becoming a professional, neglecting a life of crime. You can draw a line from Sonny Liston to George Foreman to Rocky Balboa to Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather – all trod this well-worn path.
These criteria definitely do not apply to these five; all of them contradict Norman Mailer’s declaration of respect for boxers “because they're violent people who learned to discipline themselves.” These are exceptionally intelligent people at one of the finest Universities in the world and the film expertly peels away the layers to gradually reveal their reasoning.
Blue Blood pulls no punches; it gives us the guts as well as the glory – quite literally in one scene when a boxer doing his roadwork stops to vomit. Some of the scenes are as smartly shot and as cinematic as anything since Raging Bull and Riley never shies away from the fact that boxing is a hurting business, brutal and bloody, and the punches that land are as genuine as the desperation of defeat and the glory of victory.
As Bundini says in When We Were Kings: “This ain’t no Hollywood set. This is real. We don’t pick up a script. We wake up in the morning feeling tired, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But we go through it with feeling.”
When We Were Kings is the benchmark for excellence in sports documentaries and, in comparison, Blue Blood falls short. But to criticise it for not matching that impossibly high level is as churlish and pointless as slagging every album since 1966 for not being Revolver or failing to appreciate The Wire because it isn’t The Sopranos.
In fact, Blue Blood was part of the first wave of excellent sports documentaries in recent years and can bear comparison with Once In A Lifetime, Zidane – Portrait Of A 21st Century Genius and Substitute. With James Toback’s examination of Mike Tyson due for release within the next year or so along with Spike Lee’s films on Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, the latter half of the Noughties has been a great era for this particular genre. It is thanks to Brackett, Riley, Fred, Justin, Charlie, Boiler and Kavanagh that Blue Blood is a worthy addition to the canon.
Success is a journey not a destination and watching these five fighters and the changes they undergo on that journey is a rewarding experience. No doubt all have and will go on to even bigger and better things after leaving Oxford but this documentary is a wonderful testament to their time as boxers. They are leaving, they are leaving but the fighters still remain.
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