Review: ‘Southpaw’ has solid Jake Gyllenhaal in ring but a contrived script
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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. Reverential shots by cinematographer Maurio Fiore of moments like hands being taped are the dominant aesthetic. 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.
Also at ringside is Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a mouthy contender who wants his shot at the champ and doesn’t care who knows it. If you think we’ll be seeing more of Escobar later, you’ve been peeking at the script.
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.
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. 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. Well, it works for him.
Once Billy and Mo get home to the kind of palatial estate that would make Donald Trump jealous, the champ turns out to be Mr. Softy with Leila (Oona Laurence), the brainy young daughter (she wears glasses!) he loves to bits.
Wife Mo, meanwhile, is worried about the wear on his body and mind her husband’s masochistic fighting style might be causing. 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.
Then, in a wild and crazy turn of events, everything changes in a heartbeat, and not for the better. It wouldn’t be fair to give away too much plot nonsense, but it’s always a safe assumption that things will have to get worse before they get better. A whole lot worse.
Billy’s journey in “Southpaw’s” second half takes him to a classic rundown gym operated by Titus “Tick” Wills, the film’s other major character. 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.
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.
But as impressive as this is — and it is very impressive — Billy does not seem an ideal match for Gyllenhaal. 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.
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout, and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In general release
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