Jake Gyllenhaal has become one of the most versatile, mesmerizing, and dedicated actors in Hollywood over the past few years. And while he more than delivers, the film around him stays very stiff and cold. It's not "Rocky" or "Raging Bull," it just so, so wants to be.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a top-of-the-line boxer. He's rich, in love, and his daughter looks up to him. Perfect world, right? That's exactly what this film suffers from--severe predictability. Even though "Rocky" was similar in that regard, it managed to keep people distracted enough to stay continually suspenseful. But everything that could go wrong, does go wrong in this story. Maureen (Rachel McAdams), his wife, is killed suddenly, then he loses the next big fight and becomes a laughing stock of the sport, and his daughter is taken away to Child Services.
Billy dives deep into depression and loses all sense of himself as a fighter. His daughter won't talk to him, which is another weakness of the script. He gets these few cherished chances to see his beloved daughter but her personality changes so rapidly that it seems very unrealistic. Sometimes she's happy to see him, others she's ashamed of him. There's never any middle ground.
On his last legs, he goes to a small training gym that's led by an ex-fighter named Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker). Willis is a strict yet kind man who demands respect from the unpredictable Billy. And even though this again seems generic, there's something that keeps this film from falling under the waves--Gyllenhaal. The actor trained intensely for months to transform his body into that of a true fighter; his brooding, melancholy performance is utterly phenomenal and compelling. And even though it's easy to see what will happen next, there's no telling what Gyllenhaal will do, which is plenty enough to stay hooked.
Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") does a pretty decent job with this one, making particularly the fights visceral in both cinematography and choreography. The script is written by Kurt Sutter, known mostly as the creator of "Sons of Anarchy." The script is really the only flaw to this film but it often becomes a very noticeable one. It punches hard without any direction.
This film isn't one of the best boxing films out there but the performances are enough to keep it breathing. Hope had the potential to inspire like Balboa did decades ago, but it's just too overly dour in tone to tell a truly inspiring sports tale.