‘Southpaw’: Newfangled boxing movie borrows from the old ones

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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.

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.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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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? 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.

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. 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.

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.

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

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. 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. 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.

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. No one in “Southpaw” ever directly mentions the race of riches-to-rags light-heavyweight champ Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), either as a cultural anomaly or a marketing bonanza, although it is clearly both. But even Billy’s surname is an unsubtle reference to the ancient racist boxing trope of the Great White Hope, the wholesome and immensely marketable American hero who will rescue the sport from irredeemable blackness.

From the moment Whitaker appears on screen, the role of Tick seems built for Best Supporting Actor talk, and the great one doesn’t disappoint. (A scene where Tick/Forest explains the deal with his messed-up eye is a tragicomic gem.) Meanwhile, we’ve got 50 Cent as the obligatory charming/duplicitous fight promoter; the dashing Miguel Gomez as the dastardly, highly skilled opponent Miguel “Magic” Escobar; Skylan Brooks as the adorable street kid named “Hoppy” because his mom “liked the bunnies,” as he explains it, and Naomie Harris as an angelic social services counselor named, well, Angela. (Practically everybody in this movie should have been given less obvious names.) As is the case with even the best boxing films, the fight scenes are wall-to-wall flurries of punches, with each blow sounding like a baseball bat thwacking a leather couch, and more blood than even the most lenient fight doctors would allow. 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. 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.

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? When I say that “Southpaw” takes place in an alternate version of American reality, I don’t just mean that its hero is a hard-scrabble white ethnic kid who was raised in an orphanage in Hell’s Kitchen, on the western edge of midtown Manhattan. 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. Sutter’s fictional universe is imaginary on a more basic level, even beyond its pre-gentrified, “Dark Knight”-style portrayal of New York City. “Southpaw” presents boxing as a huge, headline-dominating enterprise in 2015 – roughly the way it was three or four decades ago – instead of a disreputable cultural sideshow associated with widespread corruption, criminal misbehavior and permanent brain damage. (How many Americans could name a heavyweight champion more recent than Mike Tyson?) Within that fiction, Sutter builds an if/then parable: If boxing were still that big, then we might get a white champion from a storybook background whose race was not seen as important, and who might be brought down by an unscrupulous black promoter (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, in an impressive array of vintage Americana suits) and then rescued and rebuilt by a hardass black trainer (the always watchable Forest Whitaker). 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.

Like any Hollywood director below the top tier, Fuqua is a collaborator in an elaborate bureaucratic enterprise rather than an auteur, but most of his films (and all the good ones) have been ambiguous fables of black-white conflict and cooperation, in which an environment of apparent racial blindness and racial equality masks a deeper and more anguished reality. 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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