This is a sports film that follows a well worn formula, and thereby courts the possibility of being cliched and of little value. However, primarily due to the superb, peerless performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (as Billy Hope, world Light Heavyweight boxing champion) it is a cracking character study, a tale of violence, redemption – Believe in Hope! – and love, and engrossing entertainment. It’s also a real tearjerker.
Warning: Spoiler ahead!
In brief, Billy (complete with wife, child, and entourage) is at the top of the world and his profession. But a moment of madness sees his wife killed before him, and that sparks his fall to the bottom of the pit. He loses his way, his self-respect, and his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Oh, and he loses his house, his cars, his superstar lifestyle, and his boxing license.
In the fall, we see Billy’s character exposed with many of its failings. He is quick tempered, violent, impatient, and intoxicated. He is also deaf to reason.
One of his hangers on remains a true friend, and steers him in the direction of salvation: a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). And so, slowly, the crawl back up begins.
Gyllenhaal was a thin wimp in the excellent Nightcrawler. Here, he seems to have undergone an amazing workout regime; he looks like a real boxer. Further, somebody who knows the sport has ensured that he moves like a boxer. It is an incredible commitment to have been made by the actor, but it pays dividends for us viewers. And the icing on the cake is that his acting is simply spot on. It’s a fine, fine performance. It’s not Raging Bull, but it’s close. I’m beginning to think that any film he does will be worth watching.
I should also commend Forest Whitaker. Although I think he is just playing Forest Whitaker at times, he has a presence and a quality that adds to the film’s depth. That having been said, I thought the belated bonding of the Hope and Wills characters was the weakest part of the film. It appeared to me that the editing may have been to blame, as the whole episode was uneven.
And then there’s Oona Laurence and Rachel McAdams (as BIlly’s wife). Both are good, though I thought Ms Laurence grabbed her opportunity with the more extensive, endurable role of the daughter, and she and Gyllenhaal were pretty near perfect together.
The fight sequences are tense, sometimes hard to watch, but gripping. You may squirm with some of the punches.
The story is a tad predictable, but holds together. You are not watching this for the plot twists, but the experience. And it is an experience well worth having.
[Footnote: the Hebrew title is literally “Without Gloves.” I guess there’s no direct translation for southpaw, but Without Gloves doesn’t do it for me.]