PARK CITY - Even as the sweet science is being usurped by MMA in the world of popular competitive pugilism, boxing is enjoying a popular entertainment renaissance on the big ("The Fighter") and small ("Lights Out") screens.
 
An interesting new addition to the contemporary boxing wave is Ian Palmer's "Knuckle," which is playing in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival and had its premiere on Friday (January 21).
 
Actually, I don't know if "Knuckle" can really be put alongside "The Fighter" and "Lights Out." The doc focuses on the rarely-featured bare-knuckle fighting subculture within the already subcultural world of Irish Travellers. 
 
"Knuckle" is brutal, bizarre, darkly humorous and utterly compelling, managing to have almost no aesthetic gloss or artifice, while still delivering more than just unintelligible brawling.
 
Full review of "Knuckle" after the break...
 
If you're like me, the description of "Knuckle" conjures up only one image, that of Brad Pitt mumbling and manhandling his way through "Snatch."
 
It turns out there's more to it than that and although "Knuckle" is helpfully subtitled, I found myself becoming quickly acclimated to this somewhat garbled patois. 
 
As basic background: The travellers are nomadic clans who reside primarily in Ireland, but also throughout the United Kingdom. You think of gypsies, but some travellers appear to be closer to trailer park dwellers, who just happen to shift trailer parks with some frequency and make those moves accompanied by much of their extended family. There are certain predominant families, but even if the last names are different, many of the groups share direct or slightly indirect bloodlines. 
 
Even though most of them may be cousins through some branch on the family tree, their names are important and those names lead to the sort of blood feuds Americans typically associate with Appalachia and one of the predominant and least deadly ways to handle those tensions is with bare-knuckle tournaments.
 
The tournaments take place in random and remote locations -- parking lots, country roads -- and feature rules and referees. Sometimes they're just for bragging rights, but when resources are pooled and stakes are put up, they can include five-figure purses.
 
Palmer spent 12 years documenting primarily the Quinn McDonagh clan, but also blood-rivals the Nevins and the Joyces, two other clans with grudges that can only be resolved (temporarily) with boxing. Sometimes these grudges stem from true and tragic grievances, but more often somebody denigrated somebody else and the only way to get satisfaction was through a challenge. 
 
It's a world that Palmer stumbled onto, a world that outsiders rarely get to see. And Palmer's smart enough to contextualize his own presence within "Knuckle."
 
Filmmaking is actually an important part of the bare-knuckle tradition, with the families exchanging boastful and contemptuous videos celebrating every triumph and with videos of the fights making their way through communities as valuable commodities. At a certain point, Palmer is making the films as much for his subjects as for art and then at a certain point, he's filming as much out of his own blood-thirsty interest as for the possibility of a future Sundance berth. Palmer's own increasing involvement probably explains the lack of polish. "Knuckle" feels like a string of loosely assembled home videos, but you're just grateful to have that kind of access at all.
 
You sit down to watch "Knuckle" and you doubt that any real life equivalents could possibly rival Brad Pitt's Pikey, but you'd be wrong. From bald reluctant legend James "The Mighty" Quinn to slovenly and vicious patriarch Big Joe Joyce to Michael Quinn, who we follow from scrawny 19-year-old to burly tattooed warrior, "Knuckle" is full of vivid characters Guy Ritchie would never be able to create from scratch. Some love the boxing tradition and are addicted to the blood-sport, while others view it as a necessary evil or a relic of a more violent generation.
 
"Knuckle" is mostly a character study, but there's still ample boxing set-pieces, some uncoordinated and slightly embarrassing, others bone-crunchingly raw. And not once does the soundtrack include "How You Like Me Now." But you know what? If somebody picks up "Knuckle" for distribution, I'm betting you could cut a good trailer to The Heavy.