Review: In ‘Southpaw,’ Jake Gyllenhaal Tries to Box His Way Back From Tragedy

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Southpaw’ review: Jake Gyllenhaal film packs weak punch.

If you know one thing about Southpaw, which tells the story of a champion boxer who loses everything and fights to get most of it back, it’s that its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, went through a crazy training regimen to prepare for the role. A flurry of haymakers in the form of boxing movie cliches, “Southpaw” was conceived as a loose remake of “The Champ” — Wallace Beery in 1931, Jon Voight in 1979 — tailored for Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem.Jake Gyllenhaal undergoes yet another startling physical transformation in “Southpaw,” a by-the-numbers boxing picture that benefits considerably from its star’s tenacious, fiercely obvious commitment.

Often the effort pays off: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Charlize Theron all won Oscars after transforming themselves for their art. Baseball and basketball may be contenders, but it is boxing that has the violence, the theatricality and the winner-takes-all simplicity which underpin so much of American cinema—hence its central place in films from “Body and Soul” and “Raging Bull” to such recent award-winners as “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter”. For The New Yorker, Gyllenhaal went back to the gym where he trained, talking about his preparations for becoming the bruising Billy Hope, a mumbling, ferocious Hell’s Kitchen orphan who willed himself to greatness.

Eminem eventually bowed out, affording Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) and Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) the leeway to rework the project for Jake Gyllenhaal. He grunts and punches and scratches and glares it in, bleeding copiously in set pieces that thud and splatter with woozy, percussively potent verisimilitude. How, then, can a new boxing drama do anything that hasn’t been done countless times before? “Southpaw”, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and written by Kurt Sutter (creator of “Sons of Anarchy”), appears to have solved this problem by starting where its predecessors finish.

Billy has fought his way up from a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, using the anger that motivates him to create a career and a life for himself and his family. Such anecdotes aren’t unique to sports movies, of course: Especially around Oscar time, we hear about actors going through impossible rigors to do justice to their characters. (For instance, Eddie Redmayne meticulously charted the different muscles affected by ALS at different stages of the disease in order to portray Stephen Hawking over the years, netting himself an Academy Award in the process.) But there’s something unique about the training stories for a boxing movie, something designed to spur admiration and envy in a way that’s uniquely male.

He and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), herself a grad of the foster system, have been together since they were kids, and their relationship is rock solid. When Gyllenhaal bulks up and learns to become a world-class fighter, he’s not just committed to a role—he’s giving himself over to a primal kind of masculinity, embracing an old-school notion of knuckle-busting machismo. Coming off of playing an emaciated and manic photographer in Nightcrawler, the Oscar-nominee for Brokeback Mountain packed on muscle to play a fighter at the end of his rope following a devastating loss.

That all changes when tragedy ensues and Billy is forced to overcome grief, avenge his personal loss, rescue his career and put his family back together. The intriguing question is whether Billy will retire while he is still relatively compos mentis, or whether he will sign the $30m contract which his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is waving under his broken nose. Let Redmayne struggle with the delicate nuances of Hawking’s disease—this is about becoming a killing machine, a Real Man, right in front of our eyes.

Just don’t confuse “Southpaw” with a really good example of the genre and its ringside dramatic possibilities, whether old (“The Set-Up,” “Champion”) or newer (“Raging Bull” or the less grandiose “The Fighter”). It should surprise no one that this endeavor entails trading his flashy manager Jordan Mains, played with understated elan by 50 Cent, for Tick Wills, a quiet corner man from a scruffy neighborhood gym.

It’s just a shame the hackneyed script from Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter, and the uninspired direction from Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, don’t do the actor’s intense performance justice. The script may have hamburger for brains, but Fuqua slams it home with the help of actors who give their all — even when giving a little less might have made things more interesting. “Southpaw” starts not at the bottom or the middle of a fighter’s career, but the tippy-top. A font of shamanic wisdom — delivered by way of Forest Whitaker’s brooding, iconic whisper — he joins a long line of such magical helpmeets, from Morgan Freeman’s Scrap-Iron Dupris to Will Smith’s Bagger Vance. Just about everything in this so-so drama is set to Ultra Macho, most every piece of character development and line of dialogue wrapped up in guy codes of behavior. Gyllenhaal can console himself in knowing that he’s not alone – the below actors have suffered similar fates after undergoing crazy transformations for mediocre movies.

Like a thousand previous big-screen prizefighters, Billy slopes to a down-at-heel neighbourhood gym, he works with a wise old trainer (Forest Whitaker), and he prepares, via the usual montages, for a comeback bout against an evil antagonist. The 30 Seconds to Mars frontman made a triumphant return to acting by shedding a lot of weight to credibly embody an HIV-positive trans woman in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. People can talk all they want about Gyllenhaal reinventing himself physically for “Southpaw,” but as Maureen, Rachel McAdams does an impressive reinvention job in an atypically gritty role, without all the gym time.

Here, he’s beefed up, impressively cut and prodigiously tattooed, his face reduced to a barely recognizable pulp of scrapes, lacerations, bulges and bruises. Gyllenhaal has been an underrated actor for years, some of his best roles in recent times coming from roles in which he’s either the sensitive or ineffectual guy in the ensemble. (I’m thinking his obsessive Robert Graysmith in Zodiac or the adoring Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain.) Even when he goes darker, like in his dual role in Enemy or as the good cop in End of Watch, he projects an empathetic soulfulness, a quiet humanity that never feels orchestrated. Mario Van Peeble’s drama received attention before opening, for the rapper’s extreme weight loss and a legal battle concerning the film’s original title, Things Fall Apart.

He is one bad decision from ruin, and it’s a swift decline — family life, career and home all vanish and he’s deserted by his fair-weather-friend of a manager (played by rapper 50 Cent). He even makes the de rigueur makeover montage — shots of him tossing around the ol’ medicine ball and hitting a truck tire with a sledgehammer — less banal and more convincing than it deserves to be. “Southpaw” may be rote, predictable and mawkish, but none of those faults lie in its star. Billy spirals into near-instantaneous poverty, unemployment, heavy drinking, suicidal craziness and indecipherable levels of Method mumbles, while his daughter is taken into custody of child services. He was good, but it was the first time I ever noticed him actively trying; as a result, Louis Bloom as a character never transcended the intensity of the actor playing him.

Eight years after piling on muscle for Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, Russell Crowe proved he’s just as talented at packing on fat, once again for Scott. Whether it’s the profiles of Gyllenhaal in the lead-up to the movie’s release or just the movie itself, you can’t escape all the work that went into Billy Hope. We’re not meant to sit back and be absorbed by this film; instead, we’re supposed to take careful notice and be awed by the filmmakers’ dedication. Bulging at 212lb, Wahlberg looked the part, but his enhanced muscles were in the service of a tonally incoherent mess of a “comedy” that proves how woefully inept Bay is at satire. He’s played by the formidable and ever-welcome Forest Whitaker, whose way of humanizing artificial constructs borders on the miraculous. “Stopping punches with your face — that’s not defense,” Whitaker says, in one of the better lines.

First, his beloved, street-smart wife (Rachel McAdams), who serves as a voice of reason and worries that he’s getting too beaten-up to keep boxing, is accidentally killed during a melee with his main rival (Miguel Gomez). The fights look like a hundred other fights we’ve seen in the movies, with slightly zazzed, sped-up action and quick cutting that’s more expedient than inspired.

When Billy is in the ring, there’s a welcome immediacy and danger to the proceedings, but the drama grinds to a halt as soon as people stop throwing punches. Renee Zellweger deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her revelatory comic turn as the titular lovable mess in 2001’s hit romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. The same can be said of the whole movie, which may well find a large audience hungry for a simple, blunt fairy tale about a hunk with a heart as big as Madison Square Garden. Just a year later, she shed the pounds gained for that project to earn a second nomination for Chicago, only to yoyo again to embody Jones for 2004’s ill-fated sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.

In movies like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, Fuqua managed to examine outmoded forms of masculinity with a semi-critical eye, but here, he buys in. Technically, everything that’s snappy about the fight scenes looks overblown elsewhere; various music and editing flourishes sabotage the willing suspension of disbelief, so you can never forget that you’re at a movie. Billy is just one more male movie character whose path to redemption requires him to suck it up, tough it out, rub some dirt on it, and get back into the ring to regain his glory.

This journey, naturally, is aided by an older, wiser ex-boxer (Forest Whitaker) who reluctantly retrains the kid, teaching him a different, more sophisticated fighting style that—wouldn’t you know it?—doubles as a nifty metaphor for Billy’s personal growth. (Rather than just barreling forward during his bouts and getting pummeled in the process, Billy will learn to bob and weave, coming to understand the importance of fighting smarter, not harder.) Because Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are fine actors, their interactions have a gritty believability to them. He was memorably jacked in both Jarhead and his first major bid at blockbuster-level stardom, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Jarhead being the unquestionably more worthy film of the two.

Prince of Persia, a video game adaptation, demanded that the actor add on mass to believably embody a young rogue prince, and while his physique impressed, the film failed to win over audiences, resulting in a box-office flop for Disney (it failed to make $100m in the US, on a budget of $200m). It’s the opposite of naturalness, which runs counter to our experience with exceptional athletes: They have a star power that makes their magnificence seem effortless. You feel the connection to De Niro in Gyllenhaal’s performance, but more broadly, you see the way that younger actors, especially male actors, worship transformations of the sort that De Niro executed in Raging Bull. Viewers aren’t immune, either: We’ve been conditioned to be wowed by people who play characters with diseases and disabilities, or who play someone fundamentally different than themselves. But in the boxing movie, there’s an extra twist, a sense of macho righteousness in all the grueling preparation that’s often paired with the main character’s trial-by-fire ordeal: He must be stripped of everything, be rebuilt stronger and better, and then defeat the other man.

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