Director Antoine (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) Fuqua has gained a large following over the last two decades. Writer Kurt (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield) Sutter’s fans are approaching legion status after the last several years. And Jake (Nightcrawler, Donnie Darko) Gyllenhaal is an movie star who has taken the term “method actor” to a whole new level, adding a new notch to his already impressive resume every single time he takes a role and transforms the film for the better. So when these three living legends decided to work together on a new project, it would be a criminal understatement to say that the buzz alone was going to fill the movie theaters nationwide. But does it hold up to the hype?
Acting-wise, Gyllenhaal has never been better. He completely owns the screen every time he appears, and with the added star power of such Hollywood heavyweights as Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Naomi Harris, and newcomer Oona Laurence, he’s got some extra help. But to be completely honest and fair, McAdams’ character’s purpose is to be attractive, Whitaker plays the role he has for the last ten years (tired and old and near giving up). 50 Cent plays an amoral thug with a nice suit, which isn’t exactly a stretch. And Harris is essentially a sympathetic guide from plot point to plot point. Laurence does a stellar job with her limited number of scenes, playing off Gyllenhaal in a performance that is complex beyond her years. She will be a star if she sticks with acting. And Gyllenhaal will most assuredly be acknowledged this coming awards season for his portrayal of this generation’s Rocky.
But there is still something that doesn’t quite sit well after viewing this film. It’s brutality is powerful. It’s harsh realism is a necessary punch in the right area and tug at all of the proper heart strings. But it begs the question of what the moral or the point of the film was to begin with. Was the point of the film to prove that all fighters fall into one or more of only three separate categories? Are all fighters criminals, morons, or losers? That cannot be the point, but it sure seems like the message. When the little girl is the only actually likable character in the movie, it makes you wonder if that was intentional or not. Fuqua has mastered the corruption theme and Sutter has made millions making America love the bad guys, but it leaves the audience asking an important question after this film: Are they simply “one trick” ponies? And, more importantly, is that a bad thing? Those who ponder this question might not like the film. Those who go for a fighting movie might be confused by the emotions they are forced to feel. Those facts, combined with a couple of great performances, make this a good film. Unfortunately, they also keep it from being a great one.