Film Review: The Good Son: The Life of Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini

Superb documentary about the famed boxer haunted by an opponent's death in the ring three decades ago, and a heart-tugging reconciliation.

What begins as your standard, well-polished ESPN-style sports documentary eventually evolves into something more emotionally momentous, as former lightweight boxing champion and early ’80s media figure Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini connects with the son of the man he killed in the ring.

Fewer tragedies in sports have garnered as much attention as that of the grueling Nov. 13, 1982 title bout between Mancini and South Korean contender Duk Koo Kim, who slipped into a coma after a fateful final blow and died four days later from a massive blood clot in his brain. The dead fighter's mother committed suicide three months later, as did the bout's referee, Richard Green, the following year. Kim's death, and famed sportscaster Howard Cosell's denunciation of boxing due to this and other brutal bouts, helped prompt such changes as reducing fights from 15 rounds to 12, all amid concerns that boxing would be banned altogether.

That moment in sports culture forms the backdrop for a documentary based on NFL analyst and former New York Post and Daily News sportswriter Mark Kriegel's just-published Mancini biography The Good Son. Jesse James Miller—who directed the feature documentary Uganda Rising as well as documentary-style shorts on Muhammad Ali, Evel Knievel and others for a fashion label—and his producers use new interviews with Mancini, his old manager Bob Arum, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, actor Ed O'Neill (who grew up watching Mancini's amateur bout in their native Youngstown, Ohio), Kim's old trainer Yoon Gu Kim and many family members, among others. With a soundtrack underscoring all in a mournful minor key, and cinematography as gauzy as a memory, the effect becomes that of which all sports is said to be: a life-or-death metaphor for our very souls.

And the life-or-death part in this case isn't all that metaphoric: Aside from the suicides and Kim's death itself, Mancini lived with burdensome guilt even though the risk of death or serious injury is something all athletes but especially boxers face. After the fight, Mancini tells the camera, "I'm dyin' inside… I just was so depressed I was losin' my mind." It was the second of a one-two punch: Ray's older brother, Lenny, a gifted boxer himself, had left the sport to become a low-level hood in a city so crime-ridden that car bombs were called "Youngstown Tune-ups," and died in still-mysterious circumstances of a gunshot wound on Valentine's Day 1981. Mancini returned to the ring after both deaths, but after the latter was no longer the same man.

Before all this, Mancini "was not just a fighter, he was an attraction, he was a star," says Leonard. Echoes the actor and boxing aficionado Mickey Rourke, Boom Boom "was the hottest thing on television" in those fledgling, halcyon early days of ESPN. In a nation that had only been interested in heavyweights until the 1976 Olympics—where Leonard and the rest of a gold-medalist U.S. boxing team introduced the country to the faster, scrappier, what Mancini calls "more entertaining" lighter weights—blue-collar boy-next-door Mancini became a small-screen star.

Paralleling his story is that of Duk Koo Kim (whose name, because of differing transliteration from the Korean alphabet, is given as Deuk-Koo Kim in the film's subtitles for Korean interviewees, Deukoo Kim in a newspaper clipping onscreen and Duk-Koo Kim in a TV clip). He grew up in horrible poverty, although author Kriegel, who frequently appears onscreen, may be hyperbolizing when he says Kim was so poor he "shared an outhouse with a cow"—cows don't need outhouses. We meet Young Mi Lee, Kim's fiancée, and Jiwan Kim, the son with whom she was pregnant when Kim died. The film talks about Jiwan flirting with becoming a boxer himself, trying to draw comparisons with the two Mancinis—which seems strained since, as the movie itself never reveals, Jiwan became a dentist.

Regardless, the film hits its emotional zenith in the 2011 meeting of Lee and Jiwan Kim with Mancini and his family in Los Angeles. What might have seemed forced and reality-showish instead comes off as utterly organic—a meeting both sides needed to achieve closure after more than 30 years. The honor it brings the late Kim is palpable, and in both word and facial expression, these brief moments of the time they spent together that day can bring you to unabashed tears.

So forgive the cliché opening of a hoodie-wearing fighter jabbing in slow motion in a ring. Everywhere it counts, the documentarians did their homework, put the people and the era in perspective, spoke exactly to the people they should have spoken to and, above all, demonstrated themselves what every fighter knows you need most: heart.