Jake Gyllenhaal is nothing if not physically committed to his roles. Having stripped down to deathly gaunt to portray Nightcrawler's crime scene cameraman Louis Bloom in last year’s bleak satire of our ghoulish 24/7 news obsession, he’s buffed up again to super-ripped in Training Day director Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw.
Originally slated to star Eminem, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope - a reigning light heavyweight boxing champion who struggles to keep his aggression in the ring. Billy needs a fair few smacks direct to the head before he truly gets into the game, dripping in blood and fury as he demolishes his opponent in a visceral Madison Square Gardens-set opening scene that has worried wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) looking on flinchingly.
When the taunting rivalry of Miguel Gomez’s strutting would-be title-holder Miguel 'Magic' Escobar boils over at a black tie charity ball, tragedy strikes and both Billy’s career and family life fall apart. 50 Cent rocks up as Billy’s manager, then gets out of there quick smart when his fighter’s fortunes are down for the count.
It’s the classic redemption storyline, with Billy forced to fight for his rights while cleaning toilets and training troubled kids at Forest Whitaker’s half-blind boxing coach Tick Willis’ gym. The older man helps Billy rebuild and focus on the ultimate prize – regaining his belt and the trust of his young daughter (Oona Laurence).
We take a look at some of the other hard knock fighters in the SBS On Demand collection.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Bill Segel’s compelling documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali opens on a dashingly suited and broad smiling Ali professing himself to be both a fighter and a minister of Islam on a satellite link up to a UK-based chat show. Host David Susskind, seemingly out of nowhere, tears him apart, branding him an intolerable fool and a disgrace to his nation and profession.
It’s a startling introduction to someone we now hold as one of the world’s most cherished fighters, sparked in part by a fractious court case over the rejection of his conscientious objector status when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, but also borne of a huge public backlash over his religious conversion and name change from Cassius Clay.
A fascinating look into Ali’s troubled years is played out under the shadow of a possible jail sentence. Just as he would not be crushed in the ring, Ali fought back hard, but it was a bruising bout to get back to the top.
In terms of fallen fighters, they don’t get much bigger than the world’s youngest heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, he of Evander Holyfield ear-biting, drug addiction, rape and domestic abuse allegations.
Writer/director James Toback first cast Tyson in a small cameo playing himself in hip hop mockumentary Black and White, but this time round he goes with the real deal documentary approach. This allows the troubled figure, with a voice much higher than his hulking frame would suggest, to recount his life story.
As with Southpaw, there’s a dodgy manager in the flamboyant Don King who Tyson claims would “kill his mother for a dollar", and an inspirational father-figure in his fond recollections of Cus D’Amato who spotted his raw talent on tough Brooklyn streets and moulded him into the prize fighter he would become.
The fickle nature of the hangers-on circling fame and glory get a look-in too, and Toback, despite his obvious closeness to the subject matter, doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Tyson’s much-detailed aggression. Despite the shock value of his worst offences, you might just come away from this incredibly forthright film with a slightly less critical opinion of the complex figure.
Like Water (2011)
“The person who takes a dump on you isn’t always your enemy, and the person who takes you out of the shit isn’t always your friend.”
These words - spoken by the trainer of Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter and long-running UFC middleweight champ Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva - could just as easily sum up the fleeting nature of Billy Hope’s supporters and the unexpected hand up he gets after his fall in Southpaw.
Like Water details the stresses placed upon Silva by dividing his time between family life in Brazil and extensive training camps in LA, as well as the almost pantomime build up to title fights as he faces down a particularly obnoxious American contender in Chael Sonnen.
The documentary’s title directly references Bruce Lee’s quote that, “you must be shapeless, formless, like water”. It was director Pablo Croce’s debut and he scooped the Best New Documentary Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001.
The Way of The Dragon (1972) and Fist of Fury (1972)
Instead of relying on Bruce Lee quotes, you could go straight to the source with the world’s most charismatic martial artist starring in two all-time classics stored in the SBS On Demand vault: The Way Of The Dragon, written and directed by Lee who also stars alongside Nora Miao and Chuck Norris; and Lo Wei’s Fist Of Fury (Jing Wu Men).
Set in Rome and laced with welcome comedy, The Way Of The Dragon (Meng Long Guo Jiang) was intended to be the first instalment of a trilogy featuring Lee’s gangster-bashing vigilante Tang Lung, but the superstar died tragically a year later, aged only 32, following a dinner in his hometown of Hong Kong with James Bond star George Lazenby. Did we mention that Lee and Norris throwdown in the colosseum?
Semra Turan stars as Aicha, a Turkish immigrant in Copenhagen who has little interest in high school, instead preferring to fight it out in a mixed-sex martial arts club run by Xian Gao’s master. Gao was the co-star and stunt coordinator of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and he also handles Fighter’s nippy fight sequences.
The pressures of Aicha’s strict religious upbringing add dramatic weight to Danish director Natasha Arthy’s handsome looking dramatic feature, with a good dose of sex appeal also thrown into the mix thanks to Cyron Melville’s turn as fellow fighter and love interest Emil.
Athoroughly entertaining, gender-switched take on what can be a testosterone-heavy genre, Fighter goes the distance.