Screenwriter Kurt Sutter’s screenplay, a remake of the classic “The Champ” (Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper) can’t help itself. Every fight film since “The Champ” uses the same arc: a counted out fighter fights his way back to title\holder and personal redemption.
Think of all the fight pictures, which escapes these hoary clichés? None.
Under the capable direction of Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), peppered with knowing fight details and featuring a committed performance from Jake Gyllenhaal (with exception of “Nightcrawler”, his best in years) the film grips.
Originally written as a vehicle for Eminem after his role in “8 Mile”, the film was helped by Eminem’s decision to bow out. Gyllenhaal, as a berserker Billy Hope, breathes life into every old cliché.
Supporting cast Rachel McAdams as Maureen, Billy’s wife and teen age love, and Oona Laurence as Leila, their daughter and most especially Forest Whitaker, whose poetic choices as Tick Wills, the stubborn old trainer who guides Billy back to center ring, sidestep every predictable moment written for him. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Jordan Mains, Billy’s two-timing manager.
Billy, a product of NY’s Child Protective Service’s, grew up in an orphanage where he met his teenage flame, best friend and future wife Maureen. Mo understands life better than Billy does, and he depends on her even more than on his manager Mains.
Billy May, as played by Gyllenhaal, is a hairsbreath away from punch-drunk. A killer fighter in the ring (whose idea of self defense is putting his head in the way of a punch), he’s the Light Heavyweight Champ. He has it all; a stately home, beautiful wife and daughter, large staff, and an unfortunate hairspring temper.
After his latest title fight, Mains wangles a three-fight deal with HBO worth $30 million. Top contender Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) wants a crack at the title, but Mo wants Billy to take a break, to spend family time and avoid another damaging fight. Confused, Billy postpones his decision.
Aching for the lucrative title match, Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) goads Billy into a brawl at a posh charity do. Guns are pulled and Maureen dies in Billy’s arms; leading to a downward spiral of drink, drugs and the loss of Billy’s lifestyle. Worst of all Leila winds up in Child Protective Services, and Billy has to fight his way back from the bottom to regain custody of Leila.
Without focusing on it, the film develops an atmosphere of foster care, multi generational poverty and dysfunctional family violence.
A job at a neighborhood gym introduces Billy to Tick Wills, an ex fighter who trains inner city kids for amateur bouts, and, estranged from his own daughter, nurses a secret drinking problem. After a tense sizing-each-other up, they father-son it, earning duel redemption before film’s end.
Ex- boxer Fiqua shoots the ring likes he means it and production values are high: DP Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, editor John Refoua’s editing and a score by composer James Horner (R.I.P.) embellish the film. Horner died in a plane crash shortly after the film wrapped.
Horner, who composed scores for sports stories “The Karate Kid” (2010) and “Field of Dreams”, among countless iconic pictures
(“Titanic”, “Aliens”, “Braveheart”, “Avatar”) avoided the big orchestral score riddled with melodramatic triumphant moments, typical of fight films.
At the end of his career, Horner tries something new: minimalism: couple of piano notes laid against an electronic bass embellished with the woodblock percussion he’s used before (“Apollo 13”, “Sneakers” etc.) The judicious use of layered piano, a mix of tension-building electronics and break outs of more traditional emotional music, leaves space for some smart sound design.
In one fight, after Billy is hit, the sound muffles; all we can hear is Billy tapping his opponent’s mug, following Tick’s instruction.
Eminem’s rap starts the film. In the first scene Billy’s in the locker room before a fight, Mo sends out his entourage to give him moral support. This is their silent routine, She pulls off Billy’s headphones and we hear Eminem’s music bleed into the room, washed away by Horner’s score.
We watch their connection. She holds him; she’s in control. gentling her man like a horse whisperer; pressing her forehead to his, he relaxes. We see the history of their hard luck life in that moment, of their pact, and Horner’s sparse music lets us share their intimacy.
Horner introduces Billy’s precious family life and his daughter, with a burst of warmth; a sampled horn, more synth and piano theme that becomes the film’s theme.
His theme for Billy’s emotional disintegration is atmospheric, introspective synth and strings, a far-off guitar and the recurrent trumpet.
There is plenty of emotion, the solo piano in ‘How Much They Miss Her’, followed by Horner’s familiar strings, is a wonderful manipulation of our emotions.
The big fight scene uses the most experimental music I’ve ever heard by Horner. (His 2003 score for Martin Campbell’s “Beyond Borders” was his most radical to date.)
The undertones of vengefulness simmers under the surface for the fist half of the fight, In the climatic moment as the action goes to slo-mo, and BIlly finds himself, Horner pulls out the triumphant horn music before returning full circle to his simple piano chords, It’s a measured challenging manipulation. Hail Horner!