“Billy Hope knows how to take a punch, but he also drops bombs.”
Antoine Fuqua’s third film in the same amount of years may not be as exciting as last year’s The Equalizer, but it does benefit from having one of the best performance’s of the year. Jake Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the role is reason enough to recommend the movie and forgive some of its generic dramatic flaws. Training Day still remains Fuqua’s best film, but Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation gives Denzel Washington some competition here for best performance in a Fuqua film. When the film focuses on the boxing scenes it is at the top of its game, but when it stretches the drama towards the family dynamics it loses its appeal by feeling too conventional and melodramatic. Fuqua was aiming at directing an authentic film and stylistically it succeeds, but the beats are way too familiar and it’s full of cliches. What I loved about the realism in the boxing scenes is that Fuqua created a sense of illusion for the audience of being a ringside spectator, as the sound of the fans cheering drowned down the voice of the TV commentators giving us a sense of witnessing the event from up close. Despite his efforts to make the film look authentic, boxing fans know that the sport isn’t as exciting as they made it out to be here. Gyllenhaal got all the right moves and mannerisms for his character, but we know there aren’t as many punches thrown in real life and that most of the rounds are spent with the referee trying to break up the fighters from hugging each other so much. Gyllenhaal saves this film from the familiar melodrama and cliches found in the genre, which just goes on to prove how difficult it is to do what Stallone did with the Rocky franchise. That was one of the rare cases where both the drama and the sport combined perfectly to deliver an emotional punch to audiences around the globe. I think Fuqua was aiming a bit too high here trying to direct a modern day version of Raging Bull, but there are just some films that can’t be imitated no matter what great of a cast you have.
This was writer Kurt Sutter’s first film screenplay, despite having written for successful TV shows such as The Shield and Sons of Anarchy prior to this. He begins the story by introducing us to boxer, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he is in the locker room getting prepared for his fight. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who has been with him since the two were young teenagers, is next to him as the trainers are giving him the last instructions and putting on his gloves. When his name is called by the announcers we find out that he is the undefeated champion in his division and has accumulated more than 40 wins. The arena is packed and everyone is chanting his name, but the fight doesn’t begin as well as he had hoped. After receiving several punches throughout the first rounds, Hope finally reacts and knocks his opponent out in the tenth round. The media goes crazy over him during the press conference after the fight where he is once again accompanied by Maureen and his promoter, Jordan Mains (50 Cent). The conference is interrupted by Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a young upcoming contender who wants his shot at the title, but he is dismissed by Billy. When he finally returns to his beautiful home, Billy gives his young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) a goodnight kiss and cuddles with her for a while. Everything seems perfect for him, but his life crumbles when his wife is killed in a tragic accident and for the first time in his life he doesn’t have someone there guiding him in his every move. His suicidal and erratic behavior makes him lose everything including the house and his daughter who is sent to child protection services. After touching bottom and in order to get his life back on track, Billy enlists the help of Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) who takes him in to his gym and begins training him for his shot at redemption.
The plot is way too familiar and it hits every possible cliche along the way, but despite it all Jake Gyllenhaal elevates the material by making his character compelling. I didn’t believe some of the melodramatic moments, but the boxing and training scenes were enough for me to enjoy it. The film puts a lot of emphasis on the father and daughter relationship and it isn’t always believable how easy it goes from a love hate relationship from one scene to the next. There are also several subplots that distract from the main story and slow down the pacing of the film. For instance, the relationship Billy builds with one of the kids in Tick’s gym only serves as a way for us to sympathize with the main protagonist and believe in his transformation, but it doesn’t go anywhere else with it. The film introduces several scenes like this as a convenient means to move along the story, but they don’t add up too much. You know exactly where the story is heading at the end, but you can’t help but feel engaged by Gyllenhaal’s performance, and in the end he is the reason why the film succeeds along with other solid supporting work from McAdams and Whitaker.