Was I Out of Line to Expect a Southpaw in the film "Southpaw?"
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2005 (DreamWorks Studios)
In the spate of (bad) boxing films made over the past few years - particularly the big budget heavy-hitters Creed and Hands of Stone (you know, films people actually went out and saw) - Southpaw stands out as a train wreck of super-heavyweight proportions. Below the carefully applied would-be grit, its fairy tale triteness exceeds both that of Russel Crowe’s Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man or even Stallone’s sad sack ham-and-egger turned contender in the first Rocky. Here, the hero is infused with a sabulous but transparent faux-angst that beseeches the audience to conflate a none-too-bright punch-drunk screw-up with a sympathetic, big-hearted teddy bear fighting for a cause that all but the most stone-hearted of blackguards can get behind - custody of his daughter in the wake of his wife’s death. (Note to filmmakers: Need to make a reprobate lovable? Have him fight for custody of his daughter.)
Jake Gyllenhaal is the eponymous hero Billy "The Great" Hope (an uncomfortable moniker for a fighter of any color post Jim Jeffries, especially a white one). Without splitting hairs, “eponymous” is also inaccurate seeing as, give the film's title, it is not unreasonable to expect Billy to be left handed and to assume the southpaw’s sometimes confounding stance that mirrors the orthodox. Alas, no hint nor peep as to Billy's favored hand, and his stance remains orthodox throughout. Perhaps the filmmakers thought Southpaw just sounds cool - an insider term that is still instantly recognizable to the layperson.
Sliced, diced, ripped and shredded with MMA-style eight pack abs, jutting sinews, and inked with illegible type in Gothic font, Gyllenhaal would have been more convincing as a UFC brawler than a true boxer. But n.b.: this review comes from a writer for whom boxing - with some notable exceptions - more or less died out with the great middleweights of the 80s. The physique and tattoos seem mawkish, pandering, desperate to attract one-time boxing fans in their slow move to MMA they likely regard as a unilateral shift (though MMA resembles boxing about as much as tennis). Despite Gyllenhaal’s range as an actor - from the schizophrenic Donnie Darko to the autistic ambulance-chaser of Nightcrawler, Southpaw is a stretch for the versatile actor. True, his movements - while lacking grace - show a canny understanding of footwork for an guy who trained for only five short months, but his flailing upper body, with a few surprises, remains less convincing. As to his fighter’s stare, well, it’s not so much a stare as a faithful impression of the Marvel franchise's snarling Wolverine, the beloved Aussie thug Mark “Chopper” Read, or a video game berserker shaking his head into the speed-cam like a victim from the Saw franchise.
Spoiler alerts? Sure. If you’ve seen it you know what happens, and if you haven’t, don’t. If you must, you can always compensate by either going to bed or waking up a half hour earlier for four days to gain back the two hours you’ve given up.
When Billy’s wife (the ubiquitous Rachel McAdams) is accidentally killed in a melee with one of Billy’s challengers, Billy unravels at an astounding rate, like a time-lapse depiction of a knit scarf unwinding itself (which actually sounds quite fun to watch, even if we weren’t discussing this ponderous tripe). He’s become a single dad to the film’s most compelling but inactive character. Bespectacled in oversized Little Miss Sunshine glasses and exuding both charming naiveté and old-soul wisdom, Oona (yes, Mr. Spellcheck, that’s her name) has become his soul reason for fighting. But Billy’s past is coming home to roost as he seeks out his wife’s murderer for revenge, only to find his quarry’s drug-addled wife alone with their child. According to director Antoine Fuqua, the magic of fatherhood is the film’s overriding theme, and Billy's revenge impulse dissipates upon learning that his wife’s shooter is also a father (and hey, it was an accident anyway). Gyllenhaal's smashing of inanimate objects and punching walls suggest a close viewing of De Niro’s spectacular, heartbreaking meltdown as the imprisoned Jake a Motta in Raging Bull. Of course Gyllenhaal is not De Niro, and Fuqua is not Scorsese, and has yet to understand that there is more to emotional pain than bloody, herky-jerky torture-porn camera close-ups of an angry face with bared teeth, some real, some gold, some missing. Having lost his next fight, he is banned from the sport for punching a ref (breaking both his nose and cheekbone, inflicting only slightly more damage that Tyson did with Referee John Coyle in his 2000 bout with Lou Savarese). And so art imitates life, or something resembling life. Even Billy's manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) suggests Billy go back to dealing upon his suspension.
Billy sells his house; his daughter is taken away from him by child services; he’s dealing again, and oh, do things look bad. What we need is a wizened, humble yet stern taskmaster to set Billy back on track. Where’s Burgess Meredith? What about all those fistic priests like The Leather Saint or Kid Monk Baroni’s Father Callahan? Is Apollo Creed even available? Unfortunately, they’re all dead. Billy finds his man in Forest Whitaker’s Titus "Tick" Wills, a gym owner and one-time manager to the only fighter to have beaten Billy. Initially reluctant to take on the loose cannon, Tick starts Billy off mopping the gym. Regular viewers of the contrived boxing movie know that it is only when a fighter is humbled down to a shell of himself that he can be rebuilt anew into something different, better, honorable… maybe even responsible.
In a 2015 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Gyllenhaal said that it was the the father-daughter relationship that drew him to the roll. According to the actor, director Antoine Fuqua said to him that he “wanted to make a movie for the young men out there who never necessarily had a father figure… to know that being a father is the most honorable job you can have in your life.” That’s swell, but Billy's no father figure. I’ll buy the argument that this unstable palooka provides a great challenge to a filmmaker: how can anyone make an even a passable roll model of this pre-dementia, perpetually ensanguined (does he ever wash after his fights?) bruiser?
It’s no crime that Gyllenhaal knows very little about the sport - most actors don’t. He may have trained a bit, but his grasp on the history of the sport is nil. His comparison of boxing to ballet is not uncommon but insightful nonetheless. Then he rambles around in an attempt to liken Swan Lake to Muhammad Ali - I honestly don’t remember how. But even Tibetan monks, hidden in vast, echoing temples separated from society for the duration of their lives, are familiar with Tchaikovsky's ballet and the world's most famous athlete. Gyllenhaal then shares his piercing psychological take on the game: “It’s very primal.” Thanks, Jake.
*The referenced episode of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air was aired on July 22, 2015.