Antoine Fuqua's newest film was unabashedly cliche but it was more than just another boxing movie, or another hero-to-underdog-back-to-hero again movie, because of the emotionally resonant work of its main cast particularly Jake Gyllenhaal, Oona Laurence, Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker.
The narrative by writer Kurt Sutter was typical of many hero-reborn stories over the years, and some parts may be too heavy handed. However, Fuqua wisely kept the focus on Gyllenhaal and did not stray too much into the emotional quagmire that Sutter's script potentially had.
However, the rise and fall of this film rest solely on its cast. And Gyllenhaal was outstanding.
Following his Oscar-snubbed role on Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with another fully-committed role that, depending on how the year shapes up, may or may not see him in contention again. He really found the character and slipped into him totally. There was no vanity nor ego in his portrayal of the boxer, and as he experienced the losses and wins, the audience was able to connect and empathise.
McAdams played a pivotal role in the story and was the emotional anchor throughout. She and Gyllenhaal had great chemistry and she really showed her depth (together with the Season 2 of True Detective).
Whitaker takes on a supporting role here, but this man, as we know, is capable of so much more! And here, he and Gyllenhaal had a natural chemistry that made their on-screen mentor-student relationship believable.
The other real star of this film was young Oona Laurence. Yes, a child actor that was brilliant and absorbing (and not annoying). Laurence held her own against Gyllenhaal and will be a fine actress to keep an eye out for. If only there were more accomplished stage child actors for the big screen.
Lastly, the music was exceptional. A brilliant juxtapose between John Horner's classical strings and Eminem's heavy rapping, reflecting the story and Gyllenhaal's character's arc.