Directors Leon Gast and Ryan Moore set their sights on straight-up hagiography with Manny, an informative, if largely deferent, biographical documentary that tritely explains the ascendancy of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. Instead of seeking insight into Pacquiao’s psychology, or even providing more ambiguous snapshots of the fighter’s daily life, Gast and Moore prefer a highlight-reel approach, mining the archives from ESPN, local Philippines broadcasts, and PPV boxing bouts for hard-hitting footage of their subject’s fists of fury. For the uninitiated, these sequences provide efficient and exciting evidence of Pacquiao’s prowess within the ring, as he dispenses opponent after opponent with scarcely a bruise on his cheek. Ultimately, though, this very display proves nothing larger than a feature-length promo for Pacquiao’s abilities, but more broadly and problematic, a desire to mythologize him as a trinity of fighter, politician, and (not so subtly) god.
Rather than carving a unique path to encounter the film’s expected biographical beats, the filmmakers tepidly frame the narrative with a low point in Pacquiao’s career: a defeat to fighter Juan Manuel Márquez in December 2012. In between, standard rags-to-riches rhetoric explains Pacquiao’s emergence from a poverty-stricken and war-torn Filipino village and punch-heavy montages reveal his domination inside the ring. There are sporadic scenes that break free from the rah-rah confines, like when Pacquiao returns home to survey the lands. Unfortunately, Gast and Moore too quickly hustle through the visits significance either to Pacquiao or the villagers, with sentimental music cues and Pacquiao’s distant gaze standing in for insight. Later in the film, Filipinos stare at their TVs while Pacquiao fights, but are given no more agency than their excited faces suggest, used merely as human emojicons to reflect the current status of the boxer’s career.
Manny does, however, know its sports, especially in the way that amateur bouts are edited together to display an unmistakable presence that wouldn’t be as readily evident without their quick succession. Likewise, famous boxing faces like broadcaster Larry Merchant and celebrity enthusiasts Mark Wahlberg and Jeremy Piven are given brief space as talking heads to praise Pacquiao’s panache. In these moments, Gast and Moore successfully glimpse the boxer’s reach to fans high and low and approach a more interesting film about the potentially self-serving interests of fandom. Alas, any such sustained exploration of these questions are abandoned for the typical high notes, most notably an extended section speculating on whether or not Pacquiao will eventually fight Floyd Mayweather. For the initiated, the info is old news and the presentation does little more than serve as hype for the fight, should it ever materialize.
Flashes of bizarro non sequiturs are given too-little screen time, like that Pacquiao starred in the 2009 Filipino sci-fi film Wapakman or is an aspiring singer, even appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2012 with Will Ferrell to perform a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In these moments, Pacquiao’s appeal reveals itself to be greater than his lighting-fast jab, but Gast and Moore are unable to look deeper into the underlying implications of the fighter’s renaissance interests, instead proffering and relishing them with a typically Western gaze as mere cultural kitsch. For such a unique and complex cultural figure, Manny too neatly canonizes Pacquiao’s legacy as one built on blood, sweat, and faith.