Stepping Into the Ring With Jake Gyllenhaal

25 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Southpaw’ Pits Boxer Against Himself.

Jake Gyllenhaal is prepping for his big fight scene in “Southpaw.” I’m supposed to meet him on a Sunday afternoon in August 2014. Since the 1930s, Hollywood has produced more than 150 boxing films in which the main character is the underdog, who triumphs over a fierce opponent or where the champ loses everything because of his reckless lifestyle.

LOS ANGELES – Jake Gyllenhaal has had a penchant for the dark side in recent years, playing tormented and sometimes sociopath characters on the fringe, but the actor found himself playing the “most adult and most evolved” role to date as a professional boxer.When the trailer for Southpaw was released, action movie fans and fight aficionados were pumped to see Jake Gyllenhaal step into the ring as they hoped the Oscar-nominated actor would add a level of prestige to the boxing drama genre. But when I walk into a private boxing gym in Pittsburgh, which doubles as director Antoine Fuqua’s production office, it’s deserted except for a man wearing a sleeveless hoodie and baseball cap, sprinting on a treadmill.

Southpaw, by filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, the latest installment in the boxing genre, deviates from the traditional narrative by pitting the heavyweight champion in an existential fight against himself. In “Southpaw,” out in US theaters on Friday, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a New York orphan who becomes a rags-to-riches boxing success, then spirals back into poverty and is unable to care for his young daughter after the sudden death of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams).

After more than 30 years of marriage, director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner finalized their divorce in 2009, and Gyllenhaal says the sudden shift in his personal life caused him to hit pause on the direction in which his career was going. While Gyllenhaal’s performance packs an emotional punch, overall, Southpaw relies too heavily on played-out boxing cliches trotted out countless times before on the silver screen. The creations of the director, Antoine Fuqua, and the screenwriter, Kurt Sutter, seem to have been freeze-dried, cut into card-sized tiles, and laid out sequentially—sustaining only the shallowest definition of character, connected only by the thinnest string of motive, and hermetically isolated from the practicalities among which the action ostensibly takes place. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Southpaw” follows Billy as he mentally falls apart and struggles to pull himself out of a severe slump as his pre-teen daughter (played by Oona Laurence) disconnects with him.

Lackluster rivalries and generic training montages aside, Gyllenhaal shines as fictional light-heavyweight champion Billy Hope—despite all of the film’s flaws. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), who grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, is the undefeated light-heavyweight champion, but he brings a bitter art to the sweet science: his method is to absorb a vast amount of punishment from his opponent until, seized with rage, he fights back with an irresistibly violent fury.

Billy’s trusted circle quickly dissipates as his world crumbles, his manager Jordan (50 Cent) jumping ship early when Billy refuses to fight in a match. It’s pouring outside, and Gyllenhaal makes an imploding gesture with his fist. “Thunder is amazing,” he says, as he climbs off the treadmill, only huffing a little. “Do you want to work out with us?” I look down at my jeans and collared shirt. To play Billy, Gyllenhaal honed his physicality into that of a boxer’s, which he called “hard physical work,” and attributed the challenge to mental training as well. The beloved brawler must battle back from the brink of total self-destruction in order to rebuild his life, career, and more importantly, his relationship with his child. Last year, Gyllenhaal won praise for playing a ruthlessly ambitious crime-scene reporter in “Nightcrawler,” a role that he starved himself for to capture a character on edge.

Gyllenhaal earned a ton of praise for his physical transformation into the punch-drunk pugilist, but his best moments actually happen outside of the ring. These early expositional sequences are among the movie’s few attractions; they hint at the behind-the-scenes dramas of the sport, involving media executives, middlemen, family, doctors, and the many other interested parties depending on the agonies in the ring.

My mind goes to two places: (a) If a movie star lends you his clothes, it’s bad manners to turn him down; and (b) The last time I boxed was — never. Instead, Billy gets into a scuffle with a potential challenger in a hotel ballroom, a gun is fired, Maureen is killed, and Billy is left to raise their young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), alone. While movies like The Fighter and Raging Bull were better at showing the ups and downs of being a boxer, Southpaw hits hardest when it focuses on the psychological toll of being in the fight game. Five summers ago, he took himself off the studio tentpole track (after “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) and started to reinvent himself in the indie world.

You can feel the loneliness and despair eminate from Gyllenhaal’s character, a true-to-life representation of the utter isolation fighters sometimes feel. There was his big-hearted cop in “End of Watch,” a trippy pair of twins in “Enemy” and a twitchy detective in “Prisoners.” He followed by playing a crime paparazzo in last year’s “Nightcrawler,” a role for which he lost 30 pounds (and came this close to getting a best actor Oscar nod). To do so, he turns to the trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a former fighter who now runs a rumpled street-side gym that’s also a second home to troubled boys from the neighborhood. It’s no spoiler to say that the movie’s other virtue is found—briefly—in these later scenes, when Tick retrains Billy and teaches him skills that the dethroned champion lacks.

For all the story’s classic elements, its core throwback is to the sense of oversupervised overproduction, the sort of rigid controls seen in studio filmmaking from the nineteen-thirties. But back then, that control was exercised by producers who, in many cases, were creators in their own right, people whose business sense arose from their story sense—which arose, in turn, from an authentic popular touch, a fundamental intuition for the great average, for the big emotional targets in their customers’ hearts.

What Gyllenhaal brings to the table, though, is an emotional awareness that makes you care about Hope in a way that Eminem could’ve never accomplished. Their sense for that sweet spot elevated the work of the industry’s vast run of skilled professionals and frustrated its handful of original artists, who chafed under studio control and thrived in a later day of independent production. He cranks out a set of dips without breaking a sweat, between sit-ups and pull-ups, and finally assumes a squatting position that helps him flip a 200-pound tire across the gym floor.

The producers of “Southpaw” haven’t created a film of people for people; they’ve populated the movie with humanoids, mere semblances of people who are endowed with the imitation of life by the thankless exertions of the extraordinary actors who embody them—and whose faces and voices might as well be applied digitally. The modicum of pleasure delivered by “Southpaw” arrives thanks to its cast, who struggle bravely and energetically with the hopelessly bland text and the invisible, impersonal direction. Gyllenhaal slurs and shambles, steams and rampages, swirling with generic energy that, in the absence of cues from the script, he seems to have wrenched from the depths of his training. In this context-free context, their able and thoughtful efforts seem less like performances than like stunts; the frenetic and spectacular display of actorly work conveys such detached virtuosity that it undercuts, from the start, the very human touch that it signifies, and for which it substitutes.

They require coolheadedness and discipline, two newly found attributes for Billy, who has to use the fight to end all fights against his bitter opponent who caused his wife’s death. “Underneath anger is vulnerability, some kind of hurt” says Gyllenhaal. “I think that’s what Billy shows somewhere: Is what he’s able to face through a series of life circumstances that are unfortunate, but that he learns from and I think he comes out a real man and has the ability to be a father as a result of that.” “I didn’t want to ask him to do something that hard that I couldn’t do myself, still right now in my age that I could still do,” he said. “So, I told Jake, I’ll do it with you. I recently described “Terminator Genisys” as a “simulacrum of a movie”; the same applies here, and there may be a connection between the two, in the creation of movies for an international market.

We’ll crank up the music and we’ll go onto the journey together from the beginning to the end.” Southpaw is filmed in gritty documentary style, with boxing closeups and fast-paced boxing sequences. That’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a recent one, and it accounts, in part, for the plethora of superhero movies and comic-book-based movies that studios produce—stories that don’t depend on a sense of place, on characters bearing particular local traits, or, for that matter, on characters who bear much resemblance to people anywhere. According to his trainer Terry Claybon, of the boxing gym Lb4Lb, Gyllenhaal would do 2,000 sit ups a day, 500 push ups, 100 dips, 100 pulls up and run eight miles to build stamina, since the fighting scenes in the film were shot in real time, with Gyllenhaal actually punching out his opponents for 12 rounds. “He is shooting 14-hour days,” Claybon says. “His stunt double is here, but Jake will not let this guy work. But because such movies are largely about the technological transformation of humans, the process and the subtext fold back into the subject and become both reflexive and symbolic. It’s a midrange drama made in a movie economy that has trouble sustaining the format; it’s a delocalized, international-style midrange drama, and, as such, it’s a contradiction in terms.

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