On the surface, Antoine Fuqua’s formulaic boxing drama seems to have a lot going for it. Fuqua, the director behind “Training Day” and “Brooklyn’s Finest” is famous for his gritty crime dramas. Casting the versatile Jake Gyllenhaal as the film’s athletic father figure Billy Hope, a nothing-to-lose boxer seeking redemption after the death of his wife, seems a surefire way to get audiences into theater seats.
Unfortunately, television-writer-turned-screenwriter Kurt Sutter’s cliché-riddled script is as malformed as it is unintentionally guffaw-inducing. Surprising news of a supporting character’s death hits the floor like a sweaty towel in one misconceived scene. It takes a few beats for the actors to massage the dialogue into something halfway convincing during the conversation that follows. You can see them compensating for an unearned dramatic shock that comes across as more funny than sad.
If you’ve seen its trailer, you know the whole story of “Southpaw.” Nonetheless, witnessing Gyllenhaal’s ever-bloodied boxing monster come to life is worth the price of admission. With a partially closed left eye, Gyllenhaal creates a thoroughly credible individual of confident, primal-minded masculinity. Billy is a masochistic fighter who needs to be hit hard enough (to bleed enough) to trigger the heightened level of anger he requires to beat his opponent. Billy “The Great” Hope is undefeated. The character is the main aspect Fuqua’s clunky sports drama has going for it. Boxing fans will eat it up. More discerning moviegoers will wince at the film’s malnourished storyline.
The rags-to-riches fighter met his similarly working-class wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in an orphanage when they were kids. The now-wealthy couple lives in an enormous mansion with their precocious young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Alas, a reckless gunshot puts an end to peaches and cream.
Billy’s tragedy-driven objective, of quickly maturing enough to raise his young daughter, takes a backseat to ruthless boxing matches filmed to resemble an HBO boxing presentation. Fuqua, a boxer himself, pulls out all the stops in filming the boxing action sequences. Dutch angles, slow-motion shots, subjective and objective points of view contribute to the energetic, if violent, spectacle. Fuqua’s boxing bouts are hardcore. Real punches fly and connect.
As screenwriting gurus would demand, Forest Whitaker is cast as boxing gym owner Tick Willis. Remember how in “Million Dollar Baby,” Clint Eastwood cast Morgan Freeman as his fellow coach? The same racial sidekick rule applies here.
Having almost been beaten by a fighter trained by Tick, Billy settles for working as a janitor in Tick’s dilapidated ghetto gym in exchange for personal training sessions. Fuqua includes peppy de rigueur training sequences complete with Gyllenhaal hitting the speed bag like a pro. Gym memberships will get a surge.
Billy’s manager Jordan (the recently bankrupted 50 Cent) proves himself a two-faced sleaze when he requires that Billy get ready in six weeks for an obligatory revenge fight against the cartoonishly arrogant Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Naturally, the movie has to end with a championship bout of winner-take-all boxing.
Go see “Southpaw” for Jake Gyllenhaal’s riveting portrayal of a character made fascinating by things like the dropped-octave voice Gyllenhaal adopts for the part. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of most daring and accomplished actors in the business, and he makes this movie happen.
Rated R. 123 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
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