Thursday, July 23, 2015
You go to see a movie like "Southpaw" for the gritty performances and slam-bang boxing scenes. From a story standpoint it's a pretty generic boxing plot, with our scrappy champion rising and falling, falling and rising, from the mat and metaphorically.
The screenplay by Kurt Sutter is original only on a technicality, liberally cribbing its plot from the "Rocky" movies and other boxing flicks. (He reputedly wrote the script with Eminem in mind, basing it loosely on the rapper/sometime actor's life story. Em doesn't appear, though he supplies a couple of punchy songs.)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist with the not-at-all-subtle name of Billy Hope, who rose from the hard streets of New York City through dint of hard work and an unmatched ferocity in the ring, an unwanted orphan who became light heavyweight champion.
Then through a succession of senseless disaster and self-destructive behavior, Billy loses it all, including custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). He's forced to reinvent himself as a fighter and as a man, starting from the bottom again and earning his way back to glory and redemption.
This is Boxing Movies 101 stuff. Check that; it's actually 201. Boxing 101 is "Rocky" and "Rocky II," where an unknown pug rises to the championship. "Southpaw" is "Rocky III" and "IV" -- they're virtually interchangeable, really -- where the reigning champ takes things for granted, gets knocked down a peg or seven, and has to scrap back to former heights.
There literally isn't a single surprise along the way, including the inevitable final match. You've got the familiar nemeses along the way, including a black-hearted young boxer (Miguel Gomez) who was responsible for Billy's fall, and the mercenary boxing promoter/manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), who tells Billy they're family but saves his deepest love for the hottest prospect.
It's an interesting role for Gyllenhaal, who jumped off the traditional Hollywood star train a few years back to pursue smaller, more personal projects like "Nightcrawler" and the excellent "End of Watch." He's fought against his blue-eyed prettiness during this time, and in "Southpaw" he really works the scarred, stumblebum angle, muttering his lines and cocking his one good eye.
After losing a bunch of weight for "Nightcrawler" he packs on the ripped muscles for this role, and director Antoine Fuqua obligingly sweeps his camera and lights across Gyllenhaal's torso to emphasize the craggy wall of his abdomen. (I'm not really sure when abs became a thing; you'd think a boxer would want a little padding there to better absorb blows.) The actor's body becomes this strange mix of revulsion and fetishized object; we linger over his spent blood and abused flesh like a latter-day Lazarus.
The fight scenes are well-choreographed and energetic, though in the commonplace failing of Hollywood boxing movies, the fighters absorb more solid blows in a single round than most pugilists encounter in a year. Billy's strategy, if you can call it that, is to let opponents wallop him until he gets furious enough to uncork his pent-up rage.
Forest Whitaker is terrific as Tick Wills, an old-school trainer who teaches kids at an inner-city gym. Billy comes to him at his bottom, after lost having his wife (Rachel McAdams) to tragedy, his daughter to social services and his fame and fortune to his own self-hating spiral. Tick is old and tough, has taken his own cuts, and retrains Billy as a defensive fighter. "Protect yourself" is his mantra, underlined by one cloudy eye.
Just as the two men begin to trust one another, the filmmakers shortcut the journey and we're back to the ring again for Billy's deliverance. A smarter, better movie would've had Billy turn down the offers of quick money and a shot at the title, realizing that when you've gone down the path of destruction you can't just back up to solve your problems.
But who wants to see a boxing movie about a boxer who doesn't want to box anymore? Me, but apparently few others.