Jake Gyllenhaal aims for knockout turn in ‘Southpaw’

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Movie review: Gyllenhaal shows his versatility in filmed-in-Pittsburgh ‘Southpaw’.

Although he is is no great white hope, Light Heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is white, although most of his crew is black or Hispanic.Like a title fight with the usual trappings — two modern gladiators with tats across sinewy backs, HBO announcer Jim Lampley, corner men trying to stanch bleeding, ring girls in teeny bikinis — the story of “Southpaw” seems very familiar.Originally conceived as a vehicle for rapper Eminem, Southpaw – think an 8 Mile-long Rocky, directed by Antoine Fuqua – stars a bulked-up and compelling Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a prize fighter battered by gloved fists and some of life’s hardest conceivable knocks.Even with the searing, ear-splitting hip-hop soundtrack featuring Eminem and Bad Meets Evil and Action Bronson & Joey Bada$$, even with the edgy camerawork and the 21 century setting, “Southpaw” comes across as a movie concoction you’d get if you put a bunch of old boxing films in a cinematic blender.

We are reminded clumsily that both Billy, whose record is 43-0, and his beautiful, beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) are products of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, supposedly bestowing street cred. Famously chiseled for the role to the point where he’s more ripped than 90 percent of actual professional fighters, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (that name!), a light-heavyweight boxer fighting battles in and out of the ring, as they say. They and their doted upon and cute-as-a-button daughter Leila (a very good Oona Laurence) live happily in palatial luxury, thanks in large part to Billy’s hardly admirable ability to withstand punishment. Orphaned as a boy, he is brutally sucker-punched as an adult when his precocious daughter (played by special young actress Oona Laurence) is taken from his custody.

Antoine Fuqua’s blood-spitting, melodramatic and shamelessly sentimental drama contains elements from a number of famous boxing movies, to wit: • Former champion deals with serious personal issues while never wavering in his love for his adorably precocious offspring. (See “The Champ,” 1931 and 1979 editions.) • Crusty trainer agrees to take on sweatshirt-wearing, big-hearted, slightly punch-drunk fighter — but only if they play by the trainer’s rules. (“Rocky,” 1976.) • Hardheaded fighter delights in taunting opponents, even as they bloody his face, and seems to actually enjoy taking punishment in the ring. (“Raging Bull,” 1980.) I could keep going and we’d probably touch on ALL the “Rockys” before it was all over. Billy’s decidedly “Rocky”-esque, boxing strategy is to tire out his opponent by allowing the other guy to smash him in the head and body until his face is a Kabuki mask of blood and the opponent can’t raise his arms anymore. Gyllenhaal’s haunted, hungry videographer in “Nightcrawler” and before his turn as a long-haired mountain climber in “Everest,” it’s another click of the reel Rubik’s cube that shows his versatility and skill that often have played second fiddle to his good looks. Sweaty and bloody as it is, Southpaw is not so much a film about boxing as it is a meditation on mistreatment, and how it can cause a human’s soul to be too comfortable on the canvas.

When we meet Billy, he’s the undisputed light-heavyweight champion of the world, defending his title against a younger opponent in a bout that turns out to be much tougher than the experts predicted. Billy’s now 43-0, but he’s in his mid-30s, bruised and battered, and showing signs of wear and tear. (He’s surprised to learn his daughter has a cell phone. During the fight scenes, “Southpaw” reminded me of the current debate about sports and the danger of repeated concussions, and it made me wonder if boxing movies were now retrograde or even a thing anymore. There is something undeniably old-school about “Southpaw,” which is especially obvious when a, yep, washed-up and broke Billy goes to a crusty, old-school trainer named Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker) for a shot at salvation.

SEEN editor Natalie Bencivenga and style editor Sara Bauknecht shop ’til they drop in Aspinwall — and check out a new place to grab a bite to eat in the neighborhood after their shopping spree! Providing his usual assured direction is Antoine Fuqua, who blends shots of New York, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Indiana, Pa., to create a seamless world of a champ who falls from giving out Cartier watches to guests like party favors to an empty apartment accurately described as “300 square feet of nothing.” “Southpaw” opens with Billy Hope being the embodiment of his name. More than two decades later, they have a loving marriage, a terrific daughter named Leila (Oona Laurence in a winning performance) and one of those giant, echo-laden mansions favored by many professional athletes.

A survivor of an orphanage in Hell’s Kitchen, he is now an undefeated boxer, husband to a loving woman (Rachel McAdams) who looks out for his personal and professional welfare, and father to their doting daughter (the excellent Oona Laurence), age 10. Far be it from me to criticize the famously successful marketing team at Weinstein for giving away far too much in the trailer and advertisements for “Southpaw” — wait, actually I WILL criticize them for giving away a hugely important and tragic development that happens fairly early in the film.

If he has any chance of putting his shattered life back together, Billy will have to start over with the help of Tick, a complicated character who is well aware of the plight that led to the newspaper headline: “The Great White Dope — Hope Loses Everything.” Billy is not an eloquent character; he often speaks in a fumbling manner like a punch-drunk boxer who lacks much formal education. Gyllenhaal goes deep with his performance, with a touch of Brando-esque mumbling in his line deliveries, and some bursts of rage that would make Sean Penn blush. The other thing the film made clear to me is that Miguel Gomez (TV’s “The Strain”), who plays the film’s taunting Apollo Creed figure, is a star. Occasionally it feels like grandstanding — acting for the sake of getting people to say, “Now THAT’S acting” — but overall it’s immensely effective work.

After all, he says, “I never really had any plans.” His wife made the plans and she and their daughter watched over Billy, whose parenting skills and ability to think differently inside and outside the ring are put to the test. “Southpaw,” originally intended for Eminem who bowed out to finish an album but whose single “Phenomenal” appears, is notable for its boxing scenes, Pittsburgh’s ability to cheat for New York, and the work of composer James Horner who died June 22 in a plane crash. Fuqua, himself no stranger to sparring and boxing, takes the camera into the ring where it feels as though the audience is dodging fists and flying blood, and trying to stagger back into the ropes. Fortunately for him, Forest Whitaker’s Tick Wills runs just the kind of old-school neighborhood gym where a guy like Billy can find redemption and purpose. That said, the matches are wildly entertaining, with Gyllenhaal snorting like a mad bull as he paces the ring, measuring his opponents and moving in for the knockout blow. Even when we’re aware our emotions are being manipulated, we’re rooting hard for Billy Hope to beat the odds and climb the mountain, because have you seen how movie-adorable his daughter is?

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