Jake Gyllenhaal was on quite a roll up until now. He did outstanding, award-worthy work in the past two years with sterling turns in “Prisoners”, “Enemy” and “Nightcrawler.” Unfortunately, his winning streak ends with “Southpaw”, the overwrought boxing movie which opened the weekend of July 24. While his transformation to look physically convincing as a professional fighter is incredibly admirable, the actor never seems to get a believable take on his character. And the clichéd script and overcooked direction don’t help him either. This film held great promise, but it’s not a contender for one of the best films of the year.
Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope character is a 40-0 champ in peak physical condition. Yet despite being an athletic superstar, he’s presented here as a mumbling shambles of a palooka. He’s so exhausted and cloudy, the man can barely steady himself at the podium to accept an award. How does this guy go even a few rounds if he’s such a mess? It’s one of the strange juxtapositions we’re asked to believe in that throws the film off within the first 15 minutes. You don’t have that body, in that superb of shape, and yet shuffle around like you practically need a cane.
Maybe “Southpaw” is trying to be similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” from 2008, but that was about a sportsman well past his prime. Hope is supposed to be at the top of his game, but we’re asked to believe that he’s not only so decrepit and incapacitated, but that’s he as thin-skinned as an amateur after a decade in the ring and the limelight. He loses his temper over some simple name-calling from an opponent at a black tie affair and he lets it turn into an all-out brawl. Then a gun is drawn and ends up killing his wife (Rachel McAdams). That spoiler was revealed a mere 50 seconds into the trailer, proving that almost every aspect of this film has been miscalculated.
After post-modern boxing movies like David O. Russell’s “The Fighter”, why trade in the overused boxing movie cliches and over-the-top tropes as they are here? “Rocky” was more realistic 40 years ago. Anyone who’s ever seen any big purse fights televised on HBO knows that out-of-control bloody brawls like this film portrays over and over again, are called within seconds of such eruptions.
And any superstar sports champion would be able to make a living once he was out of the game other than becoming a janitor. If Hope is the millionaire celeb he’s supposed to be, wouldn’t he be able to find work as a coach, or trainer, or a sports commentator? Wouldn’t he be able to make a ton of dough shilling for home gym equipment or even counter top burger grills? Why is this film so dumb about all that?
Director Antoine Fuqua shoots the hell out of this movie to ensure that every drip of sweat and string of bloody goo emitting from Hope’s battered body is filmed with the utmost drama. Is it eye candy though, attempting to gloss over the problems of Kurt Sutter’s unrealistic script? Sutter has done gritty work on TV’s “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”, but here he hasn’t created a convincing world. It seems to be conjured from an amalgam of too many boxing genre cliches. It wants to have the violence of “Raging Bull”, the underdog spirit of the “Rocky” franchise, and the manipulative pathos of “The Champ”. It’s a mix of mush we’ve all seen too many times before. It seems to be a movie less about boxing and more about boxing movies.
The way Hope is written, directed and played throughout continually challenges an audience’s capacity for empathy with his redemption story. It’s hard to care for a guy who self-sabotages continually and is so harmful to every last person around him. This lug can’t control his temper. He drinks to excess. He crashes cars. He puts his child in danger. And he pushes everyone away who tries to help him. Not to mention, he’s utterly clueless about his finances, and barely knows his daughter’s sleep habits. Swell guy, huh? Gyllenhaal can usually create amazing audience empathy with whomever he’s playing, but here his character is so repellant, it’s an impossible task.
And when Hope’s rage leads him to deliberately coldcock a ref during one bout, he spirals out of control further and loses custody of his 10-year-old daughter Leila. So what does Hope do? Does he get it together for his hearing in front of a judge? No, he interrupts her the whole time, trash-talks everyone, and bellows like a toddler wanting his blankie. Jake LaMotta displayed more likable attributes in “Raging Bull”, for heaven’s sake.
After all is lost, Hope sheepishly shows up at the run-down gym of half-blind trainer Forrest Whitaker offering to do anything to make a buck. Whitaker is playing a cliché too here, of course. The crusty and reluctant trainer called to help a down-and-out boxer wasn’t fresh in the John Garfield days. And the memory of Morgan Freeman in a very similar role from “Million Dollar Baby” should’ve made Sutter write a trainer who was very different. Luckily, Whitaker underplays the role, one of the few saving graces here.
Fuqua is a skilled director who made pulp like “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” play with a realism that he never achieves here. He gets good work out of Whitaker, a sassy and sexy turn out of McAdams, and a fresh, smart-alecky performance out of Oona Laurence as Hope’s daughter, but some good acting isn’t enough to erase all the other negatives.
“Southpaw” has an earnest quality to it that could’ve worked if the rest of the story was grounded in the reality of the modern sports world. The loss of a spouse and the changed fortunes of a celebrity could be fascinating subject material for a film. But the story here isn’t smart and it lays on its drama so thick that it becomes soap opera. And when Hope’s inevitable turn-around comes in the last 20 minutes, it’s just too cliched as well. Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.
If you’re a fan of boxing, rent some of those better boxing movies mentioned earlier. And if you’re a fan of Gyllenhaal, Fuqua and Sutter, wait for their next projects. This one pummels you until you want to throw in the towel.