Jake Gyllenhaal shows real acting power in an otherwise familiar story about a boxer who has to be redeemed in the ring
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Running time: 123 minutes
By Jay Stone
Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama Southpaw is a melodrama about a boxer who isn’t a southpaw at all: he’s right-handed. A northpaw? His name is Billy (The Great) Hope, which is furthermore a pretty crappy nickname. Billy (The Great White) Hope would be more like it, although as the plot begins to thicken — which is more than you can say for the blood that pours regularly from Billy’s left eye — a newspaper dubs him “The Great White Dope” (subhead: “Hope loses everything.”)
It all feels wrong. One thing that Southpaw gets right seems to be casting an astonishingly bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal as the light heavyweight champion of the world, but in fact he’s too good for it. Billy Hope is a part that could have been played by Eminem, who was the original choice and who would have been ideal in the role of a tough boxer from the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Eminem would have arrived on the screen with his backstory in place; all he’d have to do is glare. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, has to mumble his way into the underwritten persona, flexing mightily and boxing with an energetic intensity that — had it been copied by real-life pros — could have rescued this down-at-the-heels sport. More punches are thrown in the climactic bout of Southpaw that you’ll see in year’s worth of the actual lacklustre thing.
It all feels wrong. One thing that Southpaw gets right seems to be casting an astonishingly bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal as the light heavyweight champion of the world, but in fact he’s too good for it.
Southpaw strains to capture the gritty feel of boxing — bloody towels, dumpy gyms, sleazy promoters — but what it actually gets are the clichés of the genre. Billy is at the top of the game, loses everything, and has to win the big bout against a villainous opponent to redeem himself. If the movie has an eye for the grace of the sport, it’s a black eye; if has an ear for the rhythms of its lingo, it’s a cauliflower ear.
It starts with Billy banging around his big mansion with the lovely Maureen (Rachel McAdams) who — in the convenient narration of the ring announcer — is “herself the product of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage.” Billy and Maureen are the kind of people who call each other “baby,” and strain to find some meaning of life outside the ring. Billy can’t, and when he reacts to taunts from a contender to his crown, the arrogant Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) — he’s easy to identify as the bad guy because he shares a name with a drug cartel — tragedy strikes.
If the movie has an eye for the grace of the sport, it’s a black eye; if has an ear for the rhythms of its lingo, it’s a cauliflower ear.
It happens early in the film; Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), working from a script by Kurt Sutter, stutters through the usual steps of the boxing movie, giving it a random feel. Suddenly, Hope Loses Everything, including his beloved daughter Leila (Oona Laurence.) To win her back, he must win a boxing match. No it doesn’t make much sense, but sometimes, fancy footwork is all you need.
Billy must start again at the bottom, in the manner of many movie heroes. You can see echoes of Raging Bull and Rocky in the casual brutality of its world, and when Billy hires the washed-up ex-boxer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) as his trainer, it’s like a homecoming. We’re back in the ring, where coincidence is your corner man and the most dangerous cuts take place in the editing suite.
Fuqua decorates this familiar landscape with a few welcome touches, including Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson — a man who knows something about Losing Everything — as the slick promoter (“if it makes money it makes sense,” he says, a motto that could have been borrowed from rap.) There are also a few loose strands, including Naomi Harris as an attractive and caring social worker who seems like she should have a bigger part and Skylan Brooks as Hoppy, a gym assistant whose own tragic story is tacked on for no apparent reason except that there’s always a gym assistant with a tragic story.
As things race towards a rousing and unlikely conclusion, you’re struck mostly by Fuqua’s talent for authentic settings — if not authentic things that happen within those settings — and the professionalism with which Gyllenhaal has transformed himself. He’s no southpaw, but he can deliver a punch.
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