Cradle Of Champions

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cradle Of Champions
"Bull knows what he's doing when it comes to the action." | Photo: IFP

it's one thing to be acclaimed a champion. it's another to be given a special necklace with real golden gloves on it so that others who know boxing will gaze in awe at you wherever you go.

Bartle Bull's take on the New York Daily News Golden Gloves tournament - the biggest and oldest in the world - tries to get at the social issues that make boxing important, but for its young contenders, it's all about the glory. Golden boy Titus Williams wants to use the tournament to launch a pro career. Dedicated single mother Nisa Rodriguez wants inspire the young women she mentors in the Bronx. Skittish, resentful slum kid James Wilkins is in it for fame and fortune and wants to do everything his own way. In the ring, their trainers try to match passion with discipline, temper with technique. The results are variable but all these young people have undoubted talent and all of them will be there for the final fight night.

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Doing something new with a sports film is always challenging but never more so than with boxing. This film struggles to find anything to say that hasn't been said before. A lament that the public thinks of boxing simply as violence and doesn't understand its value hints at an ambition to win heats and minds, but realistically, nobody is likely to see this film unless already a fan of the sport. That's not to say that this doesn't have value. It provides a compact history of the tournament that has, we are told, produced more professional world champions than the Olympic Games, and it features much more footage from the ring itself than most such films.

Bull knows what he's doing when it comes to the action. Young, scrappy competitors with a lot of emotion make for more naturally appealing viewing than top pros, for all the latter's elegance. The camera moves with them, zooming in close, capturing the energy and enthusiasm of their performances. No one bout goes on for too long. As a result, this footage is always gripping, and as anyone who has trained will know, watching people with talent make mistakes is one of the best ways to learn.

Supporting this is contextual material that is significant and meaningful but, again, a little too familiar. A former police officer talks about the way he saw a no-go area transformed after a boxing gym opened there, stresses the importance of giving young people something to do that doesn't involve joining gangs. "They couldn't believe that they had the opportunity to hit a cop and get away with it," he says of his own involvement. Trainers explain the different that the sport can make to discipline and self esteem, though we don't see it from James. Standing beside the ring, his mother hollers her support as if he should have been given a medal just for being born, and we can see the love that binds these communities together and also something of the reason why he has issues in the first place.

Despite these affecting touches, the film never really gets under the skin of its young subjects. We learn facts about them but don't get the chance to connect much emotionally, which detracts a little from those beautifully shot fight scenes. Th film feels as if it were made by somebody who was already in love with all this and thereby lacked the perspective to successfully communicate its magic to other people. Cradle Of Champions is a solid little film but never quite gets its full weight behind the punch.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2019
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The story of young fighters taking part in the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament.
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