You can practically smell the blood, the sweat and the fierce actorly commitment rising from Jake Gyllenhaal’s bruised and tattooed body in “Southpaw,” a bluntly conventional melodrama about a champion boxer forced to undergo a grim crucible of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. Yet the undeniable intensity of Gyllenhaal’s bulked-up, Method-mumbling performance may leave you feeling more pummeled than convinced in this heavy-handed tale of redemption, in which director Antoine Fuqua once more demonstrates his fascination with codes of masculine aggression, extreme violence and not much else. Creakily plotted over the course of its rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectory, this partly Chinese-funded production may land enough visceral blows to catch on with audiences on its July 24 release through the Weinstein Co., but seems less likely to attain the prestige-hit status of superior efforts like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter.”
That didn’t stop exec producer Harvey Weinstein from loudly speculating at a recent Cannes sneak-peek screening that Gyllenhaal would receive an Oscar nomination for his arresting transformation here, partly as “revenge” for his perceived snub in the best actor race for last year’s “Nightcrawler.” A master awards strategist like Weinstein certainly knows of what he speaks, though in this case his words tell us less about the quality of Gyllenhaal’s performance than they do about the corruption of a system that favors big, showy stunt acting above all else, and that too often hands out acting awards for reasons that are compensatory rather than merit-based. “Revenge,” meanwhile, is a particularly ironic word choice for this particular story, which puts our hero on a collision course with the man who may have cost him everything, and rather shamelessly stokes his appetite for retribution and ours.
A rough-around-the-edges type who emerged from a life of Hell’s Kitchen foster homes and jail cells to achieve major success in the ring, light heavyweight boxing champ Billy “the Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) seems to have everything, living a life of luxury with a wife he adores, Maureen (a strong Rachel McAdams), and their precocious young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). But fame comes with the usual pitfalls, and Maureen wants her husband to take a break, not only so he can spend more time with his family, but also because she fears that his ferocious, no-holds-barred boxing style will get him seriously injured or worse. Naturally, it’s Maureen who will pay the ultimate price for her perceptiveness, succumbing to an accidental gunshot wound after Billy has a violent confrontation with a trash-talking rival, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
Reeling from this senseless tragedy, Billy quickly descends into a spiral of anger, despair, substance abuse, poverty and violence, and winds up losing his house, his longtime manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and, worst of all, Leila, who’s placed in the care of family services. Determined to win back custody of his daughter and gradually revive his boxing career, he takes a menial job cleaning toilets at a rundown boxing gym owned by Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who reluctantly agrees to oversee Billy’s training despite his distaste for the world of professional boxing. The sort of tough-love mentor who forbids drinking and swearing in his gym (yet is not immune to either vice), Tick takes a higher-minded view of the sport, giving Billy the sort of athletic education that prioritizes technique, discipline and confidence over anger, retaliation and brute force.
Particularly during the film’s first half, Fuqua deploys such a heavy directorial hand that he all but puts a chokehold on the material; he doesn’t seem to be observing Billy’s decline so much as actively trying to break his spirit, as though having the character hit rock bottom numerous times would encourage our empathy rather than leave us feeling crudely manipulated. Fortunately, despite a third-act finale that all too conveniently allows Billy to settle his score with fate, “Southpaw” largely avoids devolving into a sort of pugilistic “Death Wish” (which comes as something of a relief, given the over-the-top Grand Guignol payback in the helmer’s previous outing, “The Equalizer”). The boxing scenes themselves are dynamically lensed and cut (by d.p. Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua, respectively), and Fuqua (a boxer himself) favors a wide array of camera angles — sometimes adopting the up-close perspective of Billy’s opponent, sometimes taking a ringside seat, yet always seeking to position the viewer in the midst of a gaudy, tawdry, pulse-pounding spectacle.
At the same time, the filmmakers seem well aware that nothing they show us can really rival the spectacle of Gyllenhaal himself, who throws himself into the role of Billy Hope with the sort of go-for-broke abandon that makes even his creepy, gollum-like turn in last year’s “Nightcrawler” look like a drama-class exercise by comparison. Having shed 15 pounds (and seemingly a few IQ points) for the part, Gyllenhaal has never looked rougher or tougher onscreen; with his closely cropped hair, his swollen face, his perpetually bloodied left eye, his skin drawn tautly across his muscles, he’s virtually unrecognizable here, which for some will be more than enough to satisfy the expectations of a truly great performance. Strangest of all is the actor’s voice, which sounds as though it’s dropped at least an octave, and his decision to speak in rumbling, inarticulate half-sentences, with almost every other word an expletive. It’s a solid if strenuous piece of acting, one that never lets us forget every ounce of effort that went into achieving it.
Gyllenhaal has a handful of sturdy moments with Whitaker, who makes a fine foil in the role of the gruff old trainer, but the star has more difficulty establishing a credible father-daughter rapport with Laurence. As she demonstrated recently in Ross Partridge’s indie drama “Lamb,” Laurence is one of the year’s more remarkable child-acting discoveries, but she has little opportunity to show what she’s capable of here, largely because the movie forces Leila to lash out at her deadbeat dad in ways that feel more dramatically expedient than psychologically persuasive. Perhaps the central failing of this first feature screenplay by Kurt Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) is that it never gets beyond its protagonist’s simplistic worldview, treating Leila more or less as a prop to be brought in and stir up periodic conflict, and likewise reducing the figure of Miguel to a one-dimensional villain. A callous subplot involving an at-risk teenager at Tick’s gym strikes a particularly misguided note.
Production designer Derek R. Hill’s sets are convincingly inhabited, and the film makes effective use of Pennsylvania locations to capture the lavish and squalid extremes of Billy’s lifestyle (with boxing-match detours to Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas). James Horner’s synth score adds to the film’s brooding tenor, while the soundtrack was produced by Eminem, who was once floated as a possibility to play Billy Hope, and who might well have done more with the role — which is to say, less.