Essentially just a down-and-dirty variation on that classic pugilistic tearjerker “The Champ,” Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is notable primarily for the lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems determined to emulate the physically transformative turns of Robert De Niro (whose “Raging Bull” is another obvious influence, along with “Rocky”). Of course neither writer Kurt Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) nor Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) could be expected to produce a weeper like King Vidor’s 1931 original or Franco Zeffirelli’s sudsy 1975 remake, so without admitting any indebtedness at all to the earlier films, they’ve tried to downplay the sappiness and lay on the grittiness and grime. But despite its hardboiled exterior, the movie still wallows in sentiment and cliché.
In this take on the formula, Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a scrapper who’s worked his way up from an orphan’s life in Hell’s Kitchen, follows the “Rocky” technique of barreling full ahead against any opponent, taking a beating in the process but ultimately punching his way to costly victories. With the help of his savvy but utterly pragmatic manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson), he’s just ascended to the light heavyweight championship in a bloody bout at Madison Square Garden. He also has a good life out of the ring, living in a posh mansion with his loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their bright eleven-year old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Unfortunately, the good times end abruptly at a charity event where Billy’s confronted by his rival Miguel Escobar (swaggering, one-note Miguel Gomez). A shooting breaks out that leaves him a widower in such deep grief that he’s barely able to function and angrily dismisses the members of his childhood posse who failed to protect the person he loved most. It’s not long before Mains abandons him, the bank forecloses on the house, and—worst of all—child protective services temporarily removes Leila from his custody, setting out a series of requirements he has to fulfill before he can even visit her in her group residence, let alone get her back.
The rest of the picture follows Billy’s slow climb back to the top. He begins by taking a menial job at a gym run by legendary trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), whose interest is in helping the youngsters of the dangerous neighborhood and has no desire to work with pro fighters at all. Tick is also doubtful about Hope’s ability to overcome the bad habits like drinking, drugging and cursing that he deplores (though he’s not above indulging in some of them himself). But eventually he gives in to Billy’s pleas for help and agrees to train him for a comeback, bringing technique and discipline to Billy’s more haphazard, bulldog method. The result of all their effort is not unpredictable.
“Southpaw” has some points of interest. One is the boxing action, which Fuqua, Gyllenhaal, cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua—with the assistance of stunt coordinator John Cenatiempo, fight coordinator Terry Claybon and boxing consultant Lou DiBella—stage with visceral intensity and realism, even if the impact can only approximate what Martin Scorsese, De Niro, Michael Chapman, Thelma Schoonmaker and their colleagues achieved thirty-five years ago.
Another is Gyllenhaal’s performance, which is certain to divide viewers even more than his creepy turn in last year’s “Nightcrawler.” Many of us admired his work in Dan Gilroy’s film, but it was obviously designed to show off his versatility, one of those provocatively flamboyant efforts meant as proof of how far an actor can “stretch” beyond the audience’s expectations. Billy Hope goes even further to that end. Gyllenhaal has not only buffed up for the role, shedding pounds but strengthening muscle and making a great physical show in the ring, taking blows and responding in kind; he adopts elsewhere the persona of the mumbling, inarticulate guy who’s as beaten-down inside as he is on the outside. It comes off, to one person at least, as Method taken to an extreme, Brando’s Terry Malloy raised several notches—a very calculated, over-the-top turn reminiscent of what Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian on SNL used to refer to as “Acting!!!” It’s the sort of performance that seems intended for awards consideration, and one might be tempted to recall the comment Heath Ledger was reported to have made about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for “Capote” (over his performance in “Brokeback Mountain”): “I thought it was for the best acting, not the most acting.” Whether Ledger actually said that is doubtful, but when watching “Southpaw” you ought to keep in mind the sensitive, subtle work that Gyllenhaal did in pictures from “Donny Darko” to “Prisoners.” His Billy Hope is more eye-catching, but in reality it’s not in the same league.
As to the rest, Whitaker gives a nice if unremarkable performance as the gruff but tender-hearted Tick (even if a subplot about a teen he and Billy try to help at the gym is as manipulative as it gets), and McAdams does fine in her relatively brief role. Unfortunately, Laurence never really clicks as young Leila. The script portrays her as entirely too precocious in the opening scenes—too much like a typical sitcom kid—and then overly snippy in reaction to his dad’s failings in the later reels; the result us that we’re told about their closeness rather than feeling it, though the fault lies more in the writing than in Laurence’s performance. Jackson is coolly efficient as Billy’s self-serving manager, and Naomie Harris okay as Leila’s dedicated case worker.
But the spotlight here is on Gyllenhaal, who seems to be fighting for Academy Award recognition as determinedly as Billy is for the championship. In the end, though, one expects that in that department he’ll wind up closer to where Jon Voight did in the 1979 “Champ” (nominated for a Golden Globe but not an Oscar, and lost) than where Wallace Beery did in the 1931 one (copped the best-actor Oscar).