I’m going to channel Marlon Brando when I say, “This movie…I just don’t understand. It coulda had raves. It coulda been an Oscar contender. In Nightcrawler, Jake was somebody, instead of this bum…which is who he is. Let’s face it. It was you, Antoine?”
This movie should’ve just been a character study of a palooka that went from rags-to-riches-to rags, and could’ve found redemption at the end in something that doesn’t borrow every boxing movie cliché in the book. The problem is that it’s directed by Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day). He used to box, but perhaps he should open up a dictionary and look up the word “subtle.” The loud music (Eminem), the close-ups, and a friggin’ boxing montage! Why not play “Eye of the Tiger” during that? Instead of making The Champ and Rocky…he should’ve just stuck with the story of a boxer that came out of a foster home and made a better life for himself. Let us explore his journey, that didn’t have to end in a boxing ring, but perhaps getting his daughter back. Oh yeah, you think it was tough for Jon Voight to get his kid back (no, not Angelina Jolie…Ricky Schroder). If you have half a brain, you’ll actually be rooting against him getting his little girl Leila (Oona Laurence, who is terrific). There’s nothing we see in his character that lead us to believe he’s capable of being a good father. He’s suicidal. He can barely read and write. He’s got anger management issues. As Leila correctly points out…her and mom had to look out for him, since he’s not that smart. I suppose since there’s a sweet social worker that’s in their corner, the audience is just supposed to refrain from throwing in the towel.
The first eye-rolling moment we have is when we hear the boxers name – Billy Hope. The second comes when his loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) tells him, “If ya keep fighting like that, you’ll be punch-drunk in two years.”
I think she meant “two years ago,” because he already slurs his words. Again, Mr. Fuqua, that’s where you step in and do something. You’re the ring man. You’re in the corner, helping with the fake blood, the sweat, and supposedly looking at a script to clean things up.
I had a fear walking into the screening with good friend and former Golden Gloves fighter Sonny Naverez. I said, “I hate when boxing movies show somebody getting pummeled when the ref would actually jump in and stop the fight.”
But Hope has that style of boxing Rocky had. Letting himself get beat badly, because it makes him “angrier.” Hey…the rope-a-dope style worked for Ali, but he didn’t let his anger get the best of him. He just let his opponent get tired.
The movie had well shot fight scenes (they used a few HBO Boxing cameramen, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore), but if you know boxing at all, it doesn’t pass the smell test. In one scene late in the movie, Hope takes 15 jabs to the face. In Boxing 101, you learn to protect your head.
And just as Gyllenhaal tries a little too hard with the cadence in his voice, it’s also distracting to see rapper 50 Cent play his boxing promoter. Since we’ve heard the news stories of him claiming bankruptcy, you can’t help but think of that as he’s trying to hustle Hope into a 3-fight deal with HBO, against Maureen’s wishes.
In one of many scenes that is done right, he doesn’t play an over-the-top slimy promoter. He’s trying to make money, and he doesn’t try to hide this fact from the wife, who knows exactly what he’s about and doesn’t resent him for it.
There’s another big flaw in the movie. At a charity event somebody close to Hope is shot and killed. It’s at a big fancy hotel, so there’d obviously be cameras that caught the shooter. Everyone has cell phone cameras too, and if a few famous boxers are walking around the lobby, cell phones would be filming. Now, if nobody got video of the shooter, I’m guessing witnesses would be able to solve this crime rather quickly. Instead, it’s never brought up again in the movie.
I’ll bring up another flaw nobody probably brought up. There comes a point in the movie where Hope loses everything (except hope). I’m not exactly sure on the rules of bankruptcy (we should ask 50 Cent)…but I’m guessing you don’t lose everything in eight weeks. He’s forced to rent a crappy apartment, he has to clean up at a gym to make money to pay the rent, etc. Here’s the problem with that. Hope was a light-heavyweight champ that had gone 43 fights without a loss. If he lost everything, he could do some commercials. An athlete that big would be able to make at least six figures with endorsements, as well as autograph shows where he signs sports memorabilia. I’ve heard interviews with Hall of Fame baseball players that say they make over $250,000 a year signing autographs. One old-timer once said he made more than he did while playing. Instead, it has to be like Rocky, going back and holding a spit bucket at a dingy gym.
Now, let’s move over to the dingy gym, run by Tick Wills (Forest Witaker). His lazy eye is replaced by a glass eye. He trains poor kids, often making them do 50 push-ups if they curse. It’s a mildly interesting character, and he ends up training Hope on a new way to box (one of his great lines is “You stop punches with your face. That’s not defense.”). It would’ve been so refreshing if in the big fight at the end, Hope was being more defensive and didn’t take any shots to the face. Make it like the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight – boring, less bloody, but Hope winning on points. That would different, and a lot more interesting. It would also make more sense as to why he finally let his daughter watch the fight, too. Of course, Fuqua had to have the big fight at the end. He wasn’t going to let a cliché out of his sight.
The last complaint I can think of, involves Tick. We’re lead to believe he’s an alcoholic. When one scene has Hope finding him in a bar, it’s a little sad. The dialogue between the two works, and we move on. Yet later in the movie, the alcoholism is used for a cheap laugh. And the crowd actually laughed! Perhaps they don’t know or understand alcoholism, but having somebody say, “It’s too early for a drink,” as he pushes it away, before quickly taking a swig…probably isn’t going to be funny in a few hours when he makes life hell for those around him. But I digress.
All that complaining makes it sound like I hated the movie, and I didn’t. The father-daughter dynamics worked, despite the weak material the actors were working with.
There’s a boy named Hopper (Skylan Brooks) that’s hanging around the gym, and they do everything just right with his story.
I let this formulaic filmmaker manipulate me. He just kept going at me, and I was taking body shots to the heart. I finally just gave up and it won me over.
If you throw logic out the window, the movie will work. It’s just a shame that they didn’t make a more interesting character study with an actor that really worked hard physically for this role (it’s strange to imagine that this script was originally offered to the guy providing songs on the soundtrack – Eminem).
This might be the most unrealistic boxing movie ever made. In fact, it often felt like a few different movies were fighting to break out.
It came down to a split decision, and after looking at this critics notes…I decided to give it the win.
It gets 3 stars out of 5, and I’m being extremely generous.