In theaters Friday, July, 24
1.5 stars (out of 4 stars)
With his sinewy torso and Hulk-like biceps, Jake Gyllenhaal’s physical commitment to this role is incredible. You will not believe that this strapping Adonis is the same actor who played a gawky, bug-eyed sleazebag in Nightcrawler less than a year ago.
Here comes the but: He can only do so much heavy lifting in a grim, utterly trite melodrama.
You’ll be entertained intermittently. And months from now, when it pops up as an option on your in-flight entertainment menu at 30,000 feet in the air, feel free to stare at the screen to pass the time. But there’s little reason to pay good money and sit through a brow-beating, 123-minute-long boxing opus that brings absolutely nothing new to the ring.
Gyllenhaal plays a boxer named Billy Hope. Just to reiterate: His last name is Hope. Billy was raised on the tough streets of New York City and bounced around public housing in his youth. That’s where he met the love of his life, wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). We meet Billy just before a big match at Madison Square Garden for the lightweight title. He gets pummeled and takes a few hits but he fights back and wins. Make a note of this metaphor.
Like most boxing champs, Billy lives large. Picture a leafy suburban mansion with a staff to cater to all his needs, plus an entourage (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays his manager). The love at home, though, is priceless. He and Maureen have an adorable (if precocious) preteen daughter named Leila. And the beautiful Maureen is everything he could want in a wife — tough enough to look out for her husband’s bottom line and soft enough to sleep with him after the title fight.
Gyllenhaal and McAdams have a tender and intriguing dynamic, leading one to wonder whether this not-based-on-a-true story movie would have gone in a more interesting direction had screenwriter Kurt Sutter kept the focus on their marriage. Instead, he kills off Maureen in Act 1. (It’s not a spoiler if it happens in the first 30 minutes). Billy is left in despair as he spirals into self-destruction.
Having fun yet? Things are about to get drearier. In a flash, Billy loses it all. Yup, even his daughter gets sent away. He must move out of the estate. You might say that he’s on the ropes — especially because during an ill-fated match after Maureen’s death, he’s literally on the ropes. Obviously director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) needs his hero to crash-land, but it would be more effective if his fallout were more plausible. For a film that takes itself too seriously, it takes far-fetched liberties depicting Billy’s epic downfall. This may sound harsh, but millions of dollars from a bank account don’t just disappear after a world-class athlete’s spouse dies.
Anyway! In order to reclaim his life and his good name, Billy must work his way up from the bottom. By round 4 — around the time he takes a menial job at a dingy NYC gym — we know exactly where this redemption story is heading. Indeed, Fuqua is so intent on showing Billy’s brutal struggle that he forgoes narrative originality. First Billy befriends the blue-collar trainer (Forest Whitaker) who takes the tough love approach to guiding him. Then Billy agrees to return to the ring for One More Shot at his title. (Don’t call it a comeback!). All that’s missing from the back-in-the-game training montage is the sight of Billy running up steps to a museum.
Meanwhile, he ever-so-slowly begins to regain his daughter’s trust. Typical scene between the two: Billy visits her at the public housing. He tests her on her spelling words. He breaks up when he asks her to spell “hopelessness.” Because his last name is Hope.
Maybe this heavy-handed storytelling would be tolerable if we cared more about Billy. In theory, our hearts should break for this young man after he buries Maureen and tries to kill himself because he can’t bear the sadness. But it’s difficult to invest in his plight because Gyllenhaal plays him as a mumbling, depressed enigma. It’s anyone’s guess as to what is going on inside the head that takes so many punches. By the time Billy finally makes it back to the ring — is there anywhere else this movie would end? — we’re not even sure who exactly we’re rooting for. We just know that the tension is high and the stakes are higher and a little girl really, really wants her daddy to win. That’s not enough.
The cause just feels so . . . hopeless.
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