‘Southpaw': Jake Gyllenhaal boxing drama takes some jabs from critics

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘I miss him': Jake Gyllenhaal looks drained after leaving emotional interview where he talked about the death of his former co-star Heath Ledger.

While it may have appeared that Gyllenhaal, 34, transformed into a mountain of muscles overnight to play fictional boxer Billy Hope, the actor underwent intense training to gain the body and mindset of a fighter. “My concern was to look like a boxer,” the actor tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The fear of looking like I didn’t know how to box [on screen]” drove Gyllenhaal to dedicate the next months of his life to training twice a day, fully immersing himself in the life of a professional boxer. On Wednesday the 34-year-old actor looked drained after being asked by NPR about whether he is still mourning the loss of his Brokeback Mountain co-star Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 at the age of 28.Terrific acting and fight film cliches battle to a split decision in Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw,” further proof both of Jake Gyllenhaal’s awesome range and of the odds against making a truly original boxing picture.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.

However it might have played in its originally intended form, “Southpaw,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer in desperate need of redemption, shows how the hoariest of clichés can still—to fall back on a hoary cliché—pack a punch in the hands of a powerful actor. In order to accomplish that goal, Gyllenhaal teamed up with trainer Terry Claybon, who tells PEOPLE he had to start from the bottom with the actor, who had no previous boxing experience. “We started from the ground level, which is the perfect boxing stance,” Claybon says. “We started him off with great footwork, great defense, and then we went into sharp, direct punches.” Throughout the eight months of training, Claybon gradually increased Gyllenhaal’s workout regimen, focusing on his boxing skills and strength training: “We would go into heavy bag drills with him hitting the bag strap, which is designed to guide you to perfect punches.

Not weeks after Hope – rich, happy, successful – has defended his belt and unblemished record, a fatal altercation strips him of his family, his mansion and his career. The acting vet replied, ‘I miss him as a human being and I miss working with him and what an unfortunate thing it is that we won’t be able to see the beauty of his expression.’ The Prisoners actor added, ‘I’m trying to have relationships that are as real as they possibly can be on a movie set, be close to people because I know that it’s precious.’ ‘[Director] Antoine Fuqua always said to me that he wanted this movie to be for the young men out there who never necessarily had a father figure,’ he said. Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Billy Hope, who has turned a tormented childhood on the streets into a lucrative career as the light heavyweight champion of the world. The outspoken host got right to the point, addressing Gyllenhaal’s latest appearance on Good Morning America and how they played his ex’s song Bad Blood when he walked out to greet fans. ‘When I’m doing an interview when you’re up at 5 a.m. and you can’t really make sense of words, you’re not thinking about the background music that’s playing behind you.’ They both agreed she’s a ‘beautiful girl,’ but Jake revealed why he hasn’t tied the knot with any of his exes as of yet, saying: ‘I just got scared.’ 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.

The basic concept was a remake of “The Champ,” the classic 1931 weeper, with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, about a down-and-out former heavyweight champ, the young son who adores him, and a custody battle that reduced audiences of the day to helpless tears. (And not just of the day. Played with downcast eyes and rock-hard abs by Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy is a bleeder and a brawler, an earnest, inarticulate guy with a ferocious punch and not much in the way of grace. 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. Yeah, he lives in a gated multimillion-dollar compound outside NYC, but his relationships with his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), whom he has been with since his days in juvie, and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), are practically blissful. In case his last name isn’t a broad enough hint, you might take a moment to read his tattoos. “Fighter” and “Father” are scrawled along his sinewy forearms.

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. The filmmaking as a whole is impressive—that includes Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, John Refoua’s editing and the score by James Horner, who died before the movie’s release—and the supporting cast is first-rate, even though the excellent Naomie Harris is wasted on a role so minor she gets precious little to say. Our first real view of Gyllenhaal is of him streaming toward the camera, emerging from a hazy blur a snarling, bloody spit of rage, rampaging across the ring.

The screenplay by Kurt Sutter (creator of cable’s “Sons of Anarchy”) relies on over-the-top melodrama to remove McAdams’ Maureen from the scene, setting Billy on a downward spiral that will see him lose his boxing license, his title, his wealth and his mind. 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. Forest Whitaker is Tick Wills, the canny old trainer to whom Billy turns following his downfall, which is no less affecting for being predictable, manipulative and almost totally formulaic. We first encounter him defending his title with a late-round knockout at Madison Square Garden, which an announcer notes is a few blocks (and also “a million miles”) from the Hell’s Kitchen orphanage where the champ grew up.

His maturation as an intense, all-in shape-shifter has become especially clear of late in films like “Nightcrawler” and “Prisoners.” “Southpaw” is him romping in his new weight class. Under Tick’s tutelage Billy learns to control his anger, employ defensive tactics (apparently for the first time) and develop the patience necessary both to win in the ring and earn the trust of a dubious family court judge. Director Fuqua, who established his bona fides with 2001’s “Training Day” and has been trying to regain his mojo ever since, brings a gritty realism, employing handheld cameras and grungy settings (you can practically smell the mildew), concentrating on the pre-fight rituals and the spectacle of a championship bout.

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. Gyllenhaal’s show from start to finish; it’s as if he knew how derivative the enterprise was—how could he not?—and decided to give a bravura performance anyway, but bravura modulated by circumstances, and the dictates of the script. On the downside, whole chunks of “Southpaw” have been lifted from other films: “The Champ” (boxer-child love story), the “Rocky” franchise (an opponent, played by Miguel Gomez, who is less character than arrogant supervillain), “Raging Bull” (the way the camera artfully dwells on Billy’s bruised/defiant features), “The Fighter” (how family and friends can nurture or gnaw at a boxer). Oh, he gets solid support from McAdams (who transforms from girl next door to sexy veteran of the slums), Whitaker (always solid) and Laurence (whose owlish presence suggests one of those old souls in a young body).

Though he was unquestionably committed to the role of a conniving sociopath—speaking of actorly preparations, he lost a ton of weight to play Louis Bloom—it was a rare example of Gyllenhaal “performing” rather than letting his natural charm and intelligence shine through. He loses his wife, his mansion, his cars, his title and custody of Leila, who is placed in child-services limbo under the eye of a social worker played by Naomie Harris. 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. Gyllenhaal manages to make him simultaneously haunted—by Billy’s knowledge of his dependence on his wife, by his sense of decline that includes, though not on a conscious level, the clouding of his mind. (The script plays aptly on our own rapidly growing awareness of what concussion can do to people’s brains.) When his life falls into disarray, Billy skulks around in a hoodie, but he’s less and less hooded emotionally as he fights for the daughter who may be taken from him, and battles his way back to what I needn’t describe because you’ve already guessed it on your own. “Southpaw” isn’t “Raging Bull.” You’ve guessed that too, though it’s also because the story is about more than rage; Billy must learn to live smart, then fight smart. The director (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) prefers a visceral directness (he has made a comeback movie about a boxer named Hope, after all) and he’s favored a far more straightforward, accurate view inside the ring than, say, the impressionistic poetry of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Instead, Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore have shot their fight scenes like broadcast television, copying its camera angles and piping in the commentary of announcers Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr.

Billy is largely inarticulate, but the way he looks and moves — particularly the haunted eyes that dominate his face when Billy’s entire world implodes — speaks volumes. 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. 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 film connects its hero’s tacit madness to the larger craziness of a broadcast medium that teaches vast numbers of viewers to live with a false sense of insecurity.

His promoter-manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is little help as Hope wallows, adding the inevitable suffix of his second act: “less.” Once rock bottom is sufficiently reached for maximum eventual payoff, Hope begins righting himself in that fountain of redemption: the rundown boxing gym. He turns to an unglamorous trainer named Tick Willis (the reliably excellent Forest Whitaker), who spouts all the wisdom of boxing and life that a corner man should.

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. In “Southpaw,” his mumbling seems as studious as his fastidious enunciation in “Nightcrawler.” His physicality feels more natural than his diction, though. 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. Watching Billy train for a fight or struggle to stand up straight the next day, you believe you are witnessing the discipline and agony of a real boxer. Even biopics about practitioners of the sweet science (“Raging Bull” partly excepted) have a habit of preferring formula to verisimilitude, but while “Southpaw” sings a familiar tune, it features some pretty appealing players.

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. For that 1980 film, Robert De Niro famously trained with real-life counterpart Jake La Motta for a year, even taking part in three actual boxing matches, to bring a sense of authenticity to the part. (The actor, who won his second Oscar for his portrayal, also gained 60 pounds to play La Motta after his retirement.) An actor’s actor, De Niro embodied the the sort of commitment that has become a fetish for performers (especially in boxing films) ever since. 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. Both the actor’s and the character’s rigorous training is glorified, the physical and mental ordeal a proving ground that paves the way to victory at the end. (For the actor, victory comes via rave reviews and awards.) Done well, a boxing movie can hit familiar notes but still be incredibly affecting.

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