Certain movie subgenres get boxed in with only a handful of stories to tell. Prison movies and prize fight melodramas are among these. So look for no new angles or insights in the Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer, “Southpaw,” a tale of redemption and familial love concerning a disgraced boxer.
in fact, you can tick off the storylines from old movie as the “Southpaw” rolls along: A comeback featuring an emotionally scarred, deeply flawed boxer and his young child (“The Champ,” both versions), a death that seriously impacts a fighter’s career (“Body and Soul”), a boxer out to gain self-respect in the ring (“Rocky”); the trainer who must be wooed to work with a fighter he disdains (“Million Dollar Baby”).
No matter. This movie’s fine casting and one of the better, more restrained directorial efforts by the wildly uneven Antoine Fuqua make the familiar seem fresh and most certainly invigorating.
Also helping out enormously is the contribution of legendary trainer and the film’s fight choreographer Terry Claybon, himself a three-time Golden Glove champion before retiring undefeated. The boxing action here is captured unfiltered by quick edits or flashy angles. Instead Gyllenhaal is punching in the ring himself — no doubles and very few effects.
The action is raw and realistic as are the punches, facial tears, blows to the solar plexus and other violence to the body. While lacking the grace and ethereal beauty of the matches in “Raging Bull,” “Southpaw” comes off pretty much as the real thing.
Perhaps the only complaint one can make is that real prize fights are rarely as brutal and action-filled as the ones in “Southpaw.” All too often you get two guys waltzing around a ring to a chorus of boos from fans who pay four figures for ringside seats or three figures for Pay Per View.
The film might have derived from an existential moral tale by F.X. Toole, the trainer and cut man who published “Rope Burns” in 2000, a collection of fight stories from which Clint Eastwood grabbed “Million Dollar Baby” for his Oscar-winning film. But, no, “Southpaw” was penned by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter and written for, of all people, Eminem.
The rapper eventually backed out to concentrate on his music. (He does contribute the song “Phenomenal” to the soundtrack.) Yet the story remains rooted in its genesis as a close parallel to the musician’s own life as he struggled with the death of a best friend even as his relationship with his daughter grew stronger.
Antoine, a recreational boxer himself, had Gyllenhaal train for six months to learn the intricacies of the game rather than simply imitate the moves of a prize-fighter. The work pays off.
The movie introduces Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope before, during and after a match in Madison Square Garden in which he successfully defends his light heavyweight crown. He is shown as a ferocious pit bull of a fighter.
“The more you get hit, the harder you fight,” says his gorgeous wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) with pride and worry in her voice.
She’d like him to postpone any future fights in order to heal and spend time with her and their precocious 11-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), so smart and grown up she doesn’t seem to come from the same gene pool as her up-from-the-gutter parents.
Indeed Gyllenhaal slurs words and has the wobbly legs of a punch-drunk fighter already. He’s willing to absorb a lot of punishment to wear down an opponent while looking for an opening to slip a punch and counter off a left or right.
Then tragedy strikes — I’ll try to eliminate spoilers but it may become obvious — then Billy goes into a downward spiral of shocking and, to be frank, unbelievable decline. He loses all his money, New York mansion, fancy car and worst of all his daughter.
Child Protective Services and a judge take the child away from a father who drinks all the time while keeping a loaded gun nearby. Clearly suicidal, all that saves Billy is his desperate hope to get Leila back.
He strains to convince Tick Wills (a convincingly gruff Forest Whitaker) to train him for a comeback, not so much in the ring as in life so he can convince the judge of his parental worthiness. The only way he knows how to do this is in a gym.
So here the second act slows down for the grind of Billy training, relearning his sport and reassembling his life. It contains moments of humor, a little melodrama and lots of tough-love instructions from Tick.
All this preps you for a comeback match for the world title in Vegas, a fight nearly as unbelievable as Billy’s destroyed life given that he is, in fact, under a year’s suspension from the sport.
Again, never mind, for the match against the brash and arrogant champ Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who serves as the movie’s thinly sketched villain, is a thing of beauty for fans of boxing and the movies.
Cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua help Fuqua produce this third-act fight on a classic scale with set-ups in and out of the ring, occasional point of view shots and tight compositions on the fighters and their respective corners that have you bobbing and weaving in your seat.
If only boxing itself could produce fights this intense and sustained!
Truthfully, while Eminem proved a resourceful actor in “8 Mile,” Gyllenhaal makes this film. So it’s hard to see how Eminem could have improved on this performance. Gyllenhaal beautifully portrays a man who fails to exercise the most important muscle of them all, his brain.
Billy thinks with his body and acts on intuition. His emotional neediness was honed in Hell’s Kitchen and blossomed anew with each victory. He always looks lost in fine clothes and the entrapments of wealth. He’s a gym rat by nature and a knucklehead on the street.
The performance would dominate this movie were it not for the youthful wonder that is Oona Laurence and the world-weariness of Forest Whitaker. Laurence gives striking honesty to her every line reading while Whitaker contributes an old pro’s sense of screen presence: He knows how every movement and line will register.
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as a slick promoter and Naomie Harris (“The First Grader”) as Leila’s case worker are effective in small though somewhat underwritten supporting roles.
So while a fight film has limited options, “Southpaw” — little is made of Billy being a left-hander by the way — manages the tricky task of freshening up the old tale of a broken prize-fighter while Gyllenhaal makes it memorable.
Opens: July 24, 2015 (TWC)
Production companies: The Weinstein Company and Wanda Pictures presentation of a Riche production in association with Escape Artists, Fuquafilms
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, Rita Ora, Clare Foley, Beau Knapp, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Gomez
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Kurt Sutter
Producers: Todd Black, David Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Jerry Ye, Antoine Fuqua, Kat Samick
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Gillian Zhao, Cary Cheng, Jonathan Garrison, Kurt Sutter, David Bloomfield, David Ranes, Dylan Sellers, Ezra Swerdlow, Paul Rosenberg, Stuart Parr, David Schiff
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Derek R. Hill
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: David Robinson
Fight choreographer: Terry Claybon
Editor: John Refoua
R rating, 124 minutes