Monday, January 19, 2015

Manny: Strong Faith and Hard Fists

Manny Pacquiao is hardly the world’s preeminent boxer-politician. Even if his first term in the Philippines’ congress had not been a bit of a “learning experience,” incumbent Kiev Mayor and Maidan supporter Vitali Klitschko would still easily hold that honor (maybe Sebastian Dehnhardt should consider a follow-up doc, soon). However, Pacquiao has become a Horatio Algerish icon for his countrymen, with good reason. Pacquiao’s remarkable success in the ring and his indomitable faith are chronicled in Leon Gast & Ryan Moore’s Manny (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Pacquiao’s childhood was everything you would expect, except even more desperately poor. When children his age should have been in elementary school, he worked what jobs he could find and went without meals, so his mother and sisters could eat. Somehow fate delivered him into a boxing ring, where the scrawny kid ploughed through the considerably larger competition. Soon, the only place left for him to find fights was America. Again fate guided him to Freddie Roach’s gym, where the trainer and pugilist immediately clicked. He was not so fortunate with his early management, but that has to be the oldest story in boxing.

Presumably, it would take something special to get Gast to return to ring, having already won an Oscar for When We Were Kings, considered by many the definitive boxing doc (though we’re obviously still partial to Klitschko), but it is easy to see what drew him to Pacquiao. The boxing congressman has at least two fights in 2011 worthy of Rocky II, one that he won but probably should have lost, and one that he lost but really should have won. Naturally, these bouts constitute a good portion of the film’s third act.

Such times would try many a man’s soul, but the glue holding together Pacquiao and his documentary profile is his devout Catholic faith. His sincerity comes through clearly and it is impressive. It might not be on their radar, but Manny is a film Catholic and Evangelical audiences should adopt.

Of course, there are lighter moments too, including clips from Pacquiao’s grade Z Filipino action films. For some reason Jeremy Piven is one of several celebrity talking heads paying tribute to the fighter, but the choice of Liam Neeson to narrate makes considerably more sense. Frankly, he has the perfect voice for the job—sensitive, but undeniably badass. Hopefully, he also gave Pacquiao tips on choosing film projects, like say a thriller in which he is searching for a kidnapped loved one.

It almost feels like Manny ends before the big climatic pay-off, but it is still a compelling story of a rousing underdog life. There is good boxing material here, but it is just as much about faith and family. Recommended for sports fans and Christian viewers, Manny opens this Friday (1/23) in New York, at the AMC Empire.