Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: 2014’s ‘Manny’: Life Lessons From a Boxer’s Journey

BY Mark Jackson TIMEMay 27, 2022 PRINT

Liam Neeson, former heavyweight amateur boxer-turned-actor, narrates “Manny,” a powerful, if somewhat superficial, documentary about legend-in-his-own-time Filipino boxer Manuel “Pacman” Pacquiao.

boxing crowd in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (center) winning a belt in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

Pacquiao was the only boxer in history to win championships across eight different weight classes. He’s a warrior-hero renowned in all of Boxing-dom, who’s also provided great hope and inspiration to his native land. His story follows the classic Hero’s Journey stages so precisely, I’ll line it all up, blow-by-blow, as they say in boxing.

two men running in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (R) doing roadwork with a trainer in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

The Ordinary World and the Call to Adventure

The hero is introduced, as he dwells in the “Ordinary world,” in the village-compound of his upbringing. Born in 1978, Manny grew up during the bloody Philippines civil war, seeing dead bodies at age 5.

Extreme poverty ruled: His family lived in a small nipa hut, roof and walls made of coconut leaves. No dad, no food. Mother woke the family at dawn to pray the rosary. Manny dropped out of school in sixth grade. At age 12, he was the man of the family.

“The Call” came in the form of moving in with his uncle, which also, in this case, encompasses “Meeting the mentor.” Uncle trained him to box; Manny soon won a gold medal.

boxer in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao shadow boxing in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

Next comes “Crossing the Threshold,” where the hero leaves the Ordinary world. To better help his family, Manny stowed away on a boat to Manila, starving, with no money at age 13. He later told his mother, “If I’d asked your permission, you’d never have permitted it.” In the stages of becoming a man, this is known as “Stealing the Key to the Wildman’s Cage From Under the Mother’s Pillow.”

Manny slept in the boxing ring of a gym; he had to lie about his age to get his boxing license. At 98 pounds, he was 10 pounds under minimum weight. Even so, as a teenager, Manny KO’d all his much bigger opponents and headed to America to seek his fortune.

boxer hitting punching bag in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (L) hitting a heavy bag in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

A Second Mentor

With Freddie Roach, arguably the world’s greatest boxing coach in his corner, Manny takes down the world’s most-feared 122-pounder: South African super-bantamweight “Lehlo” Ledwaba. Roach rounds out Pacquiao’s skill set and hires a conditioning-coach who adds power, speed, and explosiveness to Manny’s arsenal.

two men training boxing in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (L) hitting mitts with famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

On top of the world now, Pacquiao could only fall. Like Pinocchio diminished his moral stature due to the temptation of the big city (symbolized by his growing donkey ears), so did Pacquiao start to gamble, drink, and cheat on his wife.

Some of this phase is amusing: A tiny but dangerous fighter sings romantic schmaltz, with relish, on talk shows. There he is, singing Dan Hill’s “I wanna hold you til I die. …” And yet he’s so sincere and having so much fun, you can’t help but enjoy him enjoying it.

three men in boxing ring in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (center) getting ready to spar in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

But one day the Divine speaks to Manny in a dream, asking, “Why have you left me?” Whereupon Manny drastically changes his life and ends his wicked ways.

Returning With the Elixir

Also known as “Bringing the gold back to the village compound,” Manny returns to the Philippines to become a politician. One hundred million people now drop everything to watch him fight.

A must-see film for fight fans, “Manny” is, however, a pretty blatant hagiography that glides mostly on the surface of Pacquiao’s life. His work as a congressman and his public service are briefly shown by his sponsoring a new hospital.

Manny Pacquiao (L) versus Juan Marquez in the documentary “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

His cockfighting operation is not mentioned. His gambling is, but whether he gambled on the cockfighting is unclear. But one assumes Pacquiao emulated erstwhile greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time, Roy Jones Jr., in watching cockfighting, which is understandable. Fighters fight, and so do roosters at the drop of a dime. Roy Jones studied fighting birds to sharpen his boxing technique.

Manny Pacquiao (L) versus Juan Marquez in the documentary “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

The filmmakers cruise past the legendary nastiness of the sport of boxing’s management. Most people know by now the dastardly deceiving depths of Don King; promoter Bob Arum is shown to subtly radiate the ruthless control that exploits Pacquiao.

But the filmmakers aren’t out to reinvent the wheel, just pay homage to a shooting star. Manny’s life had greatness.

four men in boxing ring corner in MANNY
Manny Pacquiao (center) being tended to by his corner team, including trainer Freddie Roach (R) in “Manny.” (Gravitas Ventures/Universal Pictures)

What resonates most, is how clear-eyed, sweet, stunningly naïve, and devoid of artifice Pacquiao seems in his interviews. He’s come full circle, back to the boy in the coconut-leaf nipa hut. Except now he has enough to eat. And so do his children. And his country and boxing fandom take sustenance and inspiration in this knowledge. Highly recommended for inspiration.

Directors: Leon Gast, Ryan Moore
Documentary, starring Manny Pacquiao and Mark Wahlberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Release Date: March 8, 2014
3.5 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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