‘Southpaw’: Boxing film has no punch

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For Digital First Media

With Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead, “Southpaw” is the latest boxing film to hit the multiplexes.

Films about professional boxers are a well-established genre. They have a built in narrative trajectory with the potential for a climactic bout.

Boxing movies are often biopics, which are based on real-life pugilists. “Raging Bull” was inspired by Jake LaMotta and provided Robert De Niro with an Oscar-winning role.  In “The Hurricane,” Denzel Washington played Rubin Carter. The film captured Carter’s battles, both inside the ring as well as with the legal system. “Ali” featured Will Smith as the eponymous heavyweight and focused on his historic Rumble in the Jungle against the seemingly invincible George Foreman. In “Cinderella Man,” Russell Crowe portrayed Depression-era prizefighter, Jimmy Braddock, who eventually won the heavyweight championship. More recently, in “The Fighter,” Mark Wahlberg provided a screen treatment of Micky Ward, a journeyman boxer, who retired, then made a big comeback.

The six films in the “Rocky” series feature Sylvester Stallone as a fictional character. However, many boxing aficionados insist that the protagonist’s similarities to Chuck Wepner are unmistakable. Apollo Creed, his nemesis in the original film, is certainly evocative of Muhammad Ali.

By contrast, “Southpaw” involves a fictional character, Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), who has attained the junior middleweight championship. Is the protagonist’s surname sufficiently metaphorical for you?

Billy’s childhood was spent in the social welfare system. He met his childhood sweetheart, Hope (Rachel McAdams), in a group home. Now, the two are married and have a young school-aged daughter, Leila (Oona Lawrence). They live in a sprawling mansion and maintain a lavish lifestyle.

As the film opens, Billy has defended the belt for the fourth time. However, he barely ekes out a decision.

Billy’s boxing style totally

This photo provided by The Weinstein Company shows, Jake Gyllenhaal, center right, as Billy Hope, and Forest Whitaker, center left, as Titus "Tick" Wills, in the film, "Southpaw."  The movie releases in the U.S. on July 24, 2015.  (Scott Garfield/The Weinstein Company via AP)

This photo provided by The Weinstein Company shows, Jake Gyllenhaal, center right, as Billy Hope, and Forest Whitaker, center left, as Titus “Tick” Wills, in the film, “Southpaw.” The movie releases in the U.S. on July 24, 2015. (Scott Garfield/The Weinstein Company via AP)

dispenses with any scintilla of defense. So, his matches devolve into all-out slugfests, As a result of all the blows to the head he has sustained, Billy is now starting to show signs of having sustained neurological damage. His concerned wife begs him to retire.

At the post-bout press conference, Billy’s subpar performance is questioned by a dubious sportswriter. Suddenly, the proceedings are interrupted by a Latino contender, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez). He accuses Billy of ducking him. Why won’t Billy give him a fight? Is he afraid? Miguel’s wife, Hope, who is sitting on the dais, demands to know who this outspoken pugilist is. Excuse me, but who are you missy?  Have you ever seen the spouse of a boxer participating in a press conference?  I sure haven’t. This vignette is a portent of the film’s fundamental lack of verisimilitude.

On the way out of a charity fundraiser, Billy is again confronted by Escobar. The aspiring adversary resumes his needling. He accuses Billy of being a gutless coward. Will the champion succumb to the verbal taunts? When Escobar threatens to beat up Billy, then have sex with his wife, a brawl breaks out. A gun is pulled and Hope is accidentally shot to death in the resulting melee.

Following his wife’s death, Billy has a total psychological melt-down, replete with a suicide attempt. In the wake of his self-destructive behavior, child protective services intervenes and takes custody of Leila. Consumed with depression, Billy is unable to fight anymore. As a result of his mounting debts, Billy’s creditors seize his mansion and its contents. He is evicted from the premises.

Billy is abandoned by his long-time manager, Jordan Mains (rapper, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). Down and out, Billy ends up living in a flea-bag dump in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City.

One day, Billy stumbles into a gym, run by a retired fighter, Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). Will Billy emerge from despair and stage a comeback under Willis’ strict supervision?

For the film, Gyllenhaal has transformed his body into a remarkably well-toned, lean, mean fighting machine. If only his acting in the film was nearly as impressive. Instead, Gyllenhaal turns in a performance that is method acting taken to the extreme. It is plagued by a litany of nervous tics and verbal stutters. The film never makes clear whether the character is mentally handicapped or has been rendered permanently punch drunk. Gyllenhaal was brilliantly original in his last role as a sociopathic cameraman in “Nightcrawler.” It makes his portrayal here particularly disappointing.

Previously, Antoine Fuqua directed the widely lauded “Training Day,” which won an Academy Award for Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop. Since then, Fuqua has helmed a series of mediocrities. This included the skein of “King Arthur,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” and “The Equalizer.” “Southpaw” marks the continued downward direction of Fuqua’s career.

Screenwriter, Kurt Sutter, makes his feature debut with this film. His résumé consists entirely of scripts for the FX series, “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy.” His screenplay is a hopelessly melodramatic regurgitation of hackneyed clichés from the hoary genre of boxing films.

“Southpaw” may be a boxing film, but it has no punch.

*1/2 R (for language throughout and some violence) 123 minutes. Weinstein Group

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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