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Sundance 2011: 'Knuckle' leaves a lasting impression

January 21, 2011 |  5:47 pm

The Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition entry “Knuckle,” which premiered on Friday afternoon, has a hard-hitting and relentless quality very much in step with its subject matter: the culture of bare-knuckle outdoor brawling practiced by Irish gypsies known as Travelers.

Exhaustively filmed by Irish documentarian Ian Palmer, who gained amazing access to his subjects over a dozen years, the movie follows a preternaturally charismatic –- but also seriously butt-kicking -– family man named James Quinn McDonagh. He’s given to utterances of the sort you hear in corny Hollywood movies about boxing: “I don’t want to fight but they keep bringing the fight to me!”

Which would all sound incredibly hackneyed were it not for the fact that hard-as-nails challengers never stop assailing his local renown as “King of the Gypsies” and his situation is as real as a broken nose.

As the toughest member of his clan, McDonagh is time and again challenged to defend the family name against other Traveler families in an effort to squelch decades-long blood feuds that make the Hatfields and McCoys seem like wimpy kids. Itinerants and nomadic trailer park dwellers all, the Travelers' pathos is compounded by the fact that the guys who want to beat the crap out of one another all are blood relatives. And their rivalries -- their deep hatred of one another, clearly established by taunt videos and DVDs the families send back and forth -- cuts across generations and divides households, as seemingly intractable as anything going on in the Middle East today.

(If the ethnic stereotype sounds at all familiar, it's because Brad Pitt portrayed one such Traveler pugilist -- albeit a character with an utterly incomprehensible accent -- in Guy Ritchie's 2000 action comedy "Snatch.")

Palmer found his way into the project by accident: He had been asked to film a Traveler wedding, McDonagh was the groom’s brother and by happenstance the director was suddenly exposed to the world of “fair fights,” as such boxing-glove-free punch-ups are known. They’re officiated fights that continue until one man is either unconscious, gives up or until it is judged a draw by impartial observers (“fair fights” stand in contrast to “dirty ol’ fights” that can involve kicks, biting and grappling).

The director was invited to chronicle the McDonagh family's showdowns repeatedly over the years but also gained access to rival clans. Ultimately, Palmer’s tapes provided evidence of fair play and victory on which bragging rights -– and further brawling –- were predicated.

“It totally blew me away and I was hooked on it,” Palmer said after the screening about fair-fight culture.

The film does not yet have a distributor, so it's hard to say when fighting fans might be able to get a look at the action. Viewers take heed, however: As can be expected of a movie whose primary focus is tough blokes looking to open a can of whupass on one another, “Knuckle” boasts no shortage of wince-inducing “that’s gotta hurt” footage, bleeding facial wounds and pulse-quickening depictions of street fights.

A questioner at the screening put it to Palmer: Does he see the vicious cycle ever coming to an end?

“This feuding among family members has gone on for generations, passed on from fathers, from grandfathers, from great-grandfathers,” he said. “There is no resolution. It doesn’t work out like that. Each one picks it up and takes it on.”

-- Chris Lee

Photo: A shot from "Knuckle." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

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I wanna see this flick! Tyson Fury is an Irish Traveler so I gotta see it for him...


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