‘Southpaw’ cast outscores cliched script

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Southpaw’ has solid Jake Gyllenhaal in ring but a contrived script.

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.I’ve been conducting a running argument with myself about director Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw,” a near-classic boxing drama set in a mythological alternate-universe version of America that features a magnificent physical performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as a disgraced champ who has lost it all and must fight his way back to the top.If you admire the shameless in cinema, if you consider yourself a connoisseur of contrivance, you’re going to have to tip your glove in the direction of “Southpaw,” a boxing melodrama so gleefully preposterous attention must be paid.

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. Written by Kurt Sutter, directed by Antoine Fuqua, and starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the latest of his totally immersive performances, “Southpaw” is larded with the kind of improbabilities that would have impressed even the great contrivers of Hollywood past.

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. Yet, that said, “Southpaw” is so logic-defying it takes on a Frankenstein life of its own, especially with as energetic and focused an action maestro as Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) in charge. 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.

In fact, viewers will be forgiven for being impressed by “Southpaw’s” logic-be-damned nerve in just going for it, in believing it’s an original even though fans of sweet science cinema will recognize plot elements familiar from predecessors too numerous to name. This marks the first Hollywood screenplay for Kurt Sutter, creator of the biker-gang series “Sons of Anarchy,” another heightened macho melodrama that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as realistic. Though its plot is a violent fairy tale, the one thing about “Southpaw” that’s said to be authentic is the way its boxing matches are conceived and photographed. Both of Sutter’s guy-centric fantasy worlds pose approximately the same problem: Is this a redemptive vision of human possibility, or just an exercise in mendacious masculine ego-stroking? 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.

Fuqua is a boxer himself, and it was important to him that things look right inside the ring, which is why HBO camera operators were brought in to shoot the film’s several matches. “Southpaw” opens at one such event at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where undefeated world light-heavyweight champ Billy Hope (yes, that really is the name of Gyllenhaal’s character) is defending his title, with his knockout mini-skirted wife, Maureen (an underutilized Rachel McAdams), shouting pointed encouragement from her ringside seat. 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! If we move to the technical level, “Southpaw” is a tremendous accomplishment of mainstream cinematic craft, a near-perfect match of director, material and star.

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. 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. For Fuqua, who has been kicking around the action-adventure fringes of Hollywood since his breakout with “Training Day” in 2001, this movie feels like the fulfillment of his enormous potential, the cornball pulp demi-masterpiece he’s been threatening to make all along. (I’m more than happy to defend “The Equalizer,” Fuqua’s surprise hit from last summer. For those interested in the human angle (and who isn’t?) it turns out Billy and Mo, as he calls her, were both products of the same Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, where they bonded at age 12 and never looked back. We can discuss “Olympus Has Fallen” and “Shooter” some other time.) I’ve described Fuqua before as a younger, African-American cognate to Martin Scorsese, and I don’t mean that as a dismissal or a joke.

As written by Sutter, best known as the creator of “Sons of Anarchy,” the tattooed Billy is a man with a hair-trigger temper outside the ring who’s a total berserker inside it. Both directors display enormous technical talent and profound passion for cinema, and both have built their careers on long-term collaborations with first-rate cinematographers: Scorsese with Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson, Fuqua with Mauro Fiore. Like the old Timex watches, Billy can take a licking and keep on ticking, and his boxing style, such as it is, is to take enough punishment to make him mad enough to retaliate. 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.

Both are also given to pursuing grandiose fables of agonized American manhood, and sometimes find themselves fighting uphill battles against mediocre material. 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.

If it’s also obvious that one of them has had a much more illustrious career and achieved far more power and independence than the other, let’s just say that many factors are involved in that. We don’t have to argue that Fuqua is as good as Scorsese to see that his career has been impeded by Hollywood’s deeply ingrained racial attitudes. “Southpaw” will probably be more popular with audiences than with critics, perhaps because it’s so deliberately and conspicuously old-fashioned. Despite its apparent mode of gritty 21st-century realism – which includes some of the most brutal and convincing simulated fight scenes in Hollywood history — at heart this is a boxing flick drawn from the way-back era before “Raging Bull” and even before “Rocky.” With a few superficial details adjusted, “Southpaw’s” mythic tale of fall and redemption could be set in 1965, or 1935.

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. Billy’s all-business manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson), whose motto is “If it makes money, it makes sense,” wants him to sign a three-bout contract with HBO, but Mo is not so sure.

But as Sutter and Fuqua are both old enough to remember, it endured into the 1980s, when it poisoned the career of heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, a decent man who never wanted to carry that racial baggage. As played by Forest Whitaker, Wills is a canny veteran trainer, part Zen master, part martinet, who has forgotten more about boxing than most people will ever know. That romantic Palookaville scenario grows less plausible by the second: The last pockets of working-class whites departed Hell’s Kitchen in the Giuliani era, and the neighborhood has been entirely colonized by fashionable gay couples and hard-partying financial-sector dudes.

Whitaker has some nice moments here, but the actor everyone will be noticing in this film is Gyllenhaal, who, as usual, has completely thrown himself into this performance in a role that was written for rapper-actor Eminem. After training for six hours a day for six months — one British tabloid breathlessly reported he got up to 2,000 sit-ups — Gyllenhaal is remarkably rock solid and moves in the ring like he knows what he’s doing.

It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that “Southpaw” was constructed to appeal to the half-conscious desires or prejudices of white audiences, to the hopeful or naive idea that race does not matter or should not matter, or at least might not matter if we worked at it hard enough. Many of his most memorable performances — for instance, Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler” — involve characters who have more visible intelligence than Billy is granted here. “Southpaw” is proof of contrivance’s clout, but there is a limit to what it can do. But I think it’s overly reductive to assume that only white people are vulnerable to such a vision (which was articulated more clearly by Martin Luther King Jr. than by any other American), and anyway that’s writing Fuqua out of the picture way too much. If that is captured most vividly by the famous scene in “Training Day” where Denzel Washington convinces Ethan Hawke to smoke crack (partly by addressing him with the N-word), similar moments of tension recur in almost every Fuqua movie – sometimes by omission, as in “The Equalizer,” where the race of Washington’s superhuman avenger (a character originally written as white) is never mentioned.

After punch-drunk Billy Hope has lost his wife (a brief but striking part for Rachel McAdams), his championship, his daughter, his grandiose suburban manse and all his cars and money and bling, he finds himself in a bar with Tick Wills, the grouchy, ursine boxing lifer played by Whitaker, in the middle of a Bronx neighborhood where (if this were reality) Billy would pretty much be the only white person under age 90. “What happened to your eye?” Billy asks, midway through their scene of monosyllabic male bonding. Tick smiles in a way that might be mischievous or might be something else, and whispers, “Blue-eyed devil took my eye.” That scene struck me as closer to the secret heart of “Southpaw” than all the exciting fight footage or the boilerplate story of Billy’s relationship with the unctuous promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) and his cocksure, trash-talking and possibly more talented nemesis, Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

If this movie connects with audiences, of course it does so first and foremost as a visual and visceral spectacle, an old-school inspirational yarn about a damaged, violent man struggling to outgrow his self-destructive anger.

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