Hit and miss…
Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Denzel Washington… If you really want to be taken seriously as a Hollywood heavyweight, you have to get your boxing gloves on.
Earning even more Method points for bulking up straight after slimming down for Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal throws everything he’s got into the ring, delivering a knockout performance. Shame that the film itself doesn’t hit as hard.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is at the top of his game – a left-handed champ (aka a southpaw) with a pimped-up house, a blinged-up wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and a surprisingly not-messed-up daughter, Leila, (Oona Laurence) who practises her counting on his cuts and bruises every night. Everything goes wrong when a rival shoots his wife and sends Billy into a spiral of anger and alcohol. He loses all his money – and custody of his daughter.
Starting again from the bottom, Billy works his way back to the big time via a grizzled old mentor, Titus (Forest Whitaker), and a lot of training montages. Because prize fighting is obviously the best way to prove that he’s capable of looking after a seven-year-old, right?
Smartly, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) directs the fight scenes like he’s working for HBO. A few Raging Bull slow-mos aside, the camera doesn’t give Gyllenhaal anywhere to hide – just long takes and full body shots that look achingly real and utterly unlike most other boxing movies.
Outside the ropes things are less interesting but Gyllenhaal never stops throwing the punches. Radiator abs aside, it’s an unflattering, unshowy role that he refuses to overplay. The result is a street-smart, coiled spring of a turn, as psychologically acute as it is physically authentic.
Elsewhere, Naomie Harris is fine but forgettable as a social worker, Whitaker is Whitaker, 50 Cent is 50 Cent and pop star Rita Ora cameos as a junkie in what feels like a screen test for something else. But the biggest problem is the story.
Given that it was originally written (by Sons Of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter) as a metaphor for Eminem’s custody battles, it’s a shame the narrative plays like something derived from other movies rather than real life.
In fact, given all the melodrama and the stackable list of clichés, you could probably cut the film together with bits of other boxing movies and not really notice anything that isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal.