Boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s proudest moment, as he says in Jesse James Miller’s nimble documentary, “The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom ‘ Mancini,” was his World Boxing Association lightweight championship. By defeating Art Frias, he honored his boxer father and continued — if not avenged — his father’s legacy.
But it is another father and son that give this documentary its emotional resonance. The father is Deuk Koo Kim, Mancini’s South Korean rival in a November 13, 1982 bout that lasted 14 rounds before Mancini knocked Kim out, and ultimately caused his death. Kim’s passing left a pregnant fiancée.
“The Good Son” unites Mancini and Kim’s widow and adult son, Jiwan, hoping the men, who feel a duty to meet, can find closure for the tragedy that has haunted both of their lives. For Mancini, there is the unspoken survivor’s guilt, while Jiwan and his mother suppress their long-held feelings of anger.
While Miller poignantly films scenes of these strangers connecting, these moments also seem a bit forced. It seems odd that this interaction is their first after three decades. There is no articulated motivation about why these men choose to meet now, other than for the sake of this film.
Nevertheless, Miller captures the grace Mancini and Jiwan bring to their meeting, and the peace they each seek in the process is inspiring. This is a film about grief and forgiveness that is further magnified by the parallels drawn between Mancini and Jiwan’s need to honor their respective fathers and Mancini’s own complex feelings about his brother’s untimely death.
“The Good Son” might have benefitted from showing more of Jiwan’s story, though it does address his father’s “unhealthy” family life and background. Most of the film chronicles Mancini’s rise to fame, and “Boom Boom’s” story is fascinating. Even fans that know about the boxer’s life and career will appreciate the anecdotes and clips about his early days, while those unfamiliar with the boxer will be impressed by his discipline and desire.
Miller shows how much Mancini loved his father, a man he recalled as having “no fear.” He displays a “beautiful” photo of his dad post-fight and recalls a poem he gave to his father when he was 15 that made his dad — who never cried — shed tears. Mancini is wonderfully charismatic and engaging in these early scenes that set the tone for this affecting film about fathers and sons.
Mancini achieved a level of fame that went from celebrity (says a friend, “Frank Sinatra couldn’t wait to meet him”) to tragedy. Mancini was so troubled by the Kim fight, he refused to talk about it afterwards. These moments come across powerfully, if briefly, in the film.
The story of Mancini’s life and legacy is significant and it is well presented with terrific archival clips, photographs, and fight footage along with shrewd observations from Mancini’s childhood friend, actors Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as author Mark Kriegel (who penned the book on which this film is based).
But it is Mancini who is truly captivating here, whether he is choking back tears remembering his brother’s death, or feeling truly contrite upon meeting Jiwan. “The Good Son” is Mancini’s mea culpa memoir; a grand act of self-vindication that succeeds because the boxer is sympathetic and asks respectfully for forgiveness and absolution.
Elegantly filmed by Ian Kerr, and featuring a nice jazz-inflecated score by Schaun Tozer, “The Good Son” is a handsome documentary that does its subject justice.
“The Good Son” goes into limited theatrical release today. It is also available as a VOD title.
Criticwire grade: B-
“The Good Son” is a SnagFilms release. Snag Films is the parent company of Indiewire.