I suppose every self-respecting actor has to play Hamlet at some point in his career, and most of them have to play a down-and-out boxer, too. I don’t know if Jake Gyllenhaal has ever played Hamlet, but here he is as light heavyweight champ Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” complete with ripped physique and mashed face.
This role is about as far from Gyllenhaal’s last one – as the creepo videographer in “Nightcrawler” – as you can get. He went in for some heavy emaciation in preparing for that role, but at least you could see his eyes. (It helped that he rarely blinked.) In “Southpaw,” one or both of Billy’s eyes are almost always hooded or blackened.
It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal’s shape-shifty talents that “Southpaw” is as watchable as it is despite the fact that director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter pummel the audience with so many hoary boxing movie clichés that at times the film resembles nothing so much as a Greatest Hits reel.
Whenever I’ve mentioned this film to friends, the response always comes back, “Why bother after ‘Raging Bull’?” “Southpaw” doesn’t simply draw on Scorsese’s film, it also filches from such fare as “The Set-Up,” “Fat City,” “Rocky,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and, especially, “The Champ” (both versions). It’s less an homage than a shameless attempt to push all our buttons. It’s the greenest film in town – 100 percent recycled goods.
The film begins with Billy, who mumbles a lot for that punchy-working-class-hero effect, in the ring, getting pummeled as per usual. His defensive game plan, such as it is, requires him to absorb blows until he seizes the knockout. Victorious but battered, he hunkers down with his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who implores him to quit the fight game. The trouble is, she is imploring him from inside their palatial mansion, and Billy doesn’t really have any other skills to pay the piper, and he has a posse of hangers-on and managers and promoters. (The shiftiest of them is played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.) He also has a doting 11-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence) – this is where “The Champ” kicks in. She wears eyeglasses, so we know she’s meant to be wiser than her years.
Until Maureen is, alas, no longer in the picture, which comes about a half hour into the movie, “Southpaw” overrides its cliché overload because of the intense chemistry between Gyllenhaal and McAdams. Both Billy and Maureen came up from the projects together, and their devotion to each other is ferociously believable. (This is probably the best work McAdams has done in the movies.) Once we are left with Billy and the Kid, the film veers into a deep rut of predictability and stays there. Billy, you see, has to overcome some big-time anger-management issues in order to wrest Leila from the custody of child services. He also finds it in himself to get back in the ring – against his nemesis, of course. Billy takes on a trainer, a crusty ex-boxer, and a gym owner (well played by Forest Whitaker) who at first wants no part of Billy’s ordeal until he realizes it’s not the light heavyweight title Billy is trying to regain, it’s his manhood.
Like westerns, boxing movies, even the classics, do indeed draw on genre clichés for their appeal. But the best of the boxing movies do more than satisfy our desire for the tried-and-true. They also surprise us; they subvert the genre, or at least freshen it. “Southpaw” is so determinedly derivative that at times it’s almost insulting.
Despite its supposedly hard-hitting veneer, the film never goes out on a limb when it counts. Scant attention, for example, is devoted to the racial aspect of the story – to Billy as the Great White Hope. And some scenes are tone-deaf, like the one in which Leila is permitted for the first time to watch her father fight, on TV. She is watching him get severely bloodied, and, judging from her blinkless concentration, we’re supposed to think she’s a real sport – the second coming of her mother. But what comes across seems more like a form of abuse.
Gyllenhaal is one of the most gifted actors of his generation and, along with Joaquin Phoenix, he takes more chances than just about any of them. He deserves a movie that risks as much as he does. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language and some violence.)