Knuckle (2011) Review: A Documentary For The Rest Of Us

Yell! Magazine’s review of Knuckle:

Oh my God, it’s about frigging time.

You see, the thing about reviewing mainstream blockbusters or cult classic-fringe films is that they’re usually about sensory experience. They hit us with crazy colors, epic plots, and mind-raping action in order to serve us a fine source of entertainment. Sometimes, they even try to tell us something. It’s all fun and good, but at the same time, it’s ultimately forgettable. You go in, watch the movies, write about them, perfunctorily slap on an inane X out of 5 and then pass out at the keyboard from substance abuse.

But this time, my friends, I proudly present you with something different.

Knuckle is a film that examines the forces that drive us to the point of sensationalized, organized violence. It documents the lives of several Irish Travellers who participate in brutal, bare-knuckle boxing matches for whatever reason they happen to rationalize up at the time. It’s an interesting study of man’s tragic captivation with violence, and that despite this whole “evolution” thing, no one can resist the contagious adrenaline that pours out of a good old brawl.

Now before you stop reading because your eyes have already glazed over from a lack of interest, let me make one thing clear: Though Knuckle is about what drives men to the point of hating someone whom they really have no reason to hate, it’s equally about shirtless Irish guys punching the crap out of each other. Think of it as the “fight” video section of, but with a vague story structure that you can sink your teeth into.

Said story begins in 1992, when a feud between the McDonaghs and the Joyce family caused a bit of an uproar, the likes of which could only be settled through old fashioned fisticuffs. As such, one fight led to another, and with time a tradition developed in which the fittest (and not so fittest) of men from each family would challenge each other to public fights, with prizes ranging from £60,000 to £120,000.

The challenges themselves were issued through videotapes (and later, DVDs) that showcased the flavor-of-the-week posturing and doling out hackneyed threats to whichever man was unfortunate enough to earn himself a spot in the ring.

And that’s about it. That’s the, uh… that’s the plot.

Knuckle (2011) picture

As it turns out, documentaries aren’t exactly about plots, they’re about the real lives and emotions of those being documented.

In this case, most of the focus falls on James Quinn McDonagh and his love/hate relationship with the weighted responsibility of kicking ass that’s been dumped on his shoulders. “I’d rather not be remembered for the fighting… ” he laments, while simultaneously admitting his fascination with the matches he’s forced into.

Like a tragic hero, he’s revered throughout his family for being an undefeated fighter and beacon for patriarchal pride. He’s arguably the most proficient in technique, and repeatedly knocks down one early contender with relative ease.

Yet, at the same time, when asked why he wants to fight the opponent in question, he struggles for words. He lets those around him answer on his behalf, and frequently states after his fights that he wishes for nothing more than “for it all just to end.”

But of course, he’s got expectations to deal with. His own children look up to him as some kind of Irish, bare-knuckled superman, and everyone around him (with the exception of the women) see him as a hero, and a man of honor. James Quinn, however, sees things differently.

“I’d rather be out socializin’ than training.” He says.

Still, there are always challenge videos on their way, and it’s unmanly to refuse a challenge. Eventually, Michael Quinn steps into the ring, and out of the shadow of his older brother, James. At this point though, even the man behind the camera, Ian Palmer, is starting to see the futility in keeping this blood feud alive, and vies for a way out. The endless fighting culminates in a vicious cycle, an unending ouroboros of shirtless Irish guys bashing each other’s heads in for honor – or something like that.

And behind all this, there’s an ever-looming thought that sticks out like a sore-thumb.

Why do we all love mass-marketed violence so much? The over-hyped fight videos of the Irish Travellers have much in common with modern, mainstream professional fighters, so where does one draw the line?

Knuckle (2011) picture
Hurr Durr

Well, mixed martial artists have to abide by a certain set of rules, but then again, so do the Travellers – they’re not allowed biting, head-butting, eye gouging or anything else that would suggest foul play.

The truth is that most of these bare-knuckle brawlers are just men who are looking for an excuse to hit something so that they can get their regressive rocks off. They’re all just waiting for a chance to prove themselves, and when a challenge tape is received, the call is accepted all too readily.

It’s enough to make a man reflect on his own love for professional violence. Not enough to make him condemn it, but enough to make him realize that there’s more to fighting than just ring girls and “honor.”

There’re broken bones, shattered pride, destroyed relationships, forced biases, and rationalized hatred. It’s not easy to step into the ring with a complete stranger (or in this case, your first cousin) and pummel his face in because he’s pummeling in yours. That shit takes balls, man – erm, if that’s what you want to call it.

Knuckle (2011) picture
Hurr Durr

Though the details of the shots start off rather grainy, the quality increases with time and technological progress. Either way, it complements the rough and real style of the lower-class Irish families that are central to the action.

Knuckle is a labor of love that shows both sides of what might as well be a modern day Greek tragedy. It touches upon the futility of fighting for the sake of fighting, and elucidates how such a brutal tradition came to be. Out of all the films that I’ve reviewed so far, it’s definitely one that’s got the most to say, and it says it all between spitting out mouthfuls of blood.

The Verdict: [rating:4]

Seriously, people. It’s the best thing I ever saw. Nothing but the complex motivations that drive people to do irrational things – a reality that’s stranger than fiction. It’s reasons like this that we make movies. To show that sometimes life itself isn’t so simple.

Check it out on DVD, or on-demand if you get the chance.

Knuckle (2011) Trailer

Knuckle (2011) - Poster Large
Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
Year Released:
21 January 2011 (USA)
Ian Palmer
James Quinn McDonagh, Michael Quinn McDonagh, Ian Palmer (narrator), and Paddy Quinn McDonagh
Documentary, Drama, Biography
Official URL:
Knuckle (2011) Official

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