“Southpaw” opens Friday at Point, Palace and Star Cinemas. R, 2:03, two stars out of four.
Bulked up beyond reason, crazy-eyed and covered in his own blood, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t look like a good-guy boxer at the opening of “Southpaw.” As Billy “The Great” Hope, Gyllenhaal looks like the guy the good-guy boxer knocks out in the third act in order to win the championship.
Seeing the tattooed, mumbling Hope take shot after shot in the ring, almost cheerfully absorbing the pain, we’re led to be believe that this will be a different sort of boxing drama from director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and writer Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), grittier and meatier. Fuqua shoves the camera into the bloodied faces of his combatants, as if Gyllenhaal is smacking the cameraman sideways instead of his opponent. Out of the ring, Billy seems less like a gladiator than a good-natured if murderous man-child, going where he’s told and letting the people around him make all the decisions for him.
But the visceral authenticity of “Southpaw” doesn’t translate into actual realism. In fact, it only makes it more glaring when the movie is quickly hit by a flurry of sports-movie cliche body blows that put it on the mat in an early round.
Because this is yet another riches-to-rags sports redemption story in the vein of “Cinderella Man.” Billy wins that opening bout, but barely, retaining his light middleweight title. His wife Mo (an underused Rachel McAdams) is tired of seeing her husband take so much punishment, and worried that the parasites who hang onto him, especially oily manager Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) will turn on Hope if they sense weakness. But Billy, stumbling through life in a punchdrunk bliss, can’t see the trouble spots in his life.
He gets a rude awakening in the form of a personal tragedy that comes out of nowhere during an altercation with a rival fighter. Grief sets Billy on a rapid downward spiral into self-destruction, and in short order he’s lost his fortune, his career, his house and his daughter. What’s telling, unfortunately, about the film is that it gives Billy’s financial hardships about the same weight as his personal ones. The fact that he no longer gets to live in a mansion is given as much sorrow as his daughter being turned over to family services.
After he hits rock bottom, Billy wanders into a scrappy Harlem gym, run by a crusty trainer named “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker). He’s looking for a shot at redemption, and after some reluctance, Wills is more than willing to give it to him. And that comeback, of course, leads back to a title bout with that rival fighter.
For a sports movie to work, we have to buy that the character’s personal growth tracks with his athletic achievement. Roy Hobbs in “The Natural” has to knock the ball into the floodlights to prove to the world he’s not past his prime. If we don’t buy that connection, it’s just a guy hitting a ball with a stick really hard.
In “Southpaw,” it seems clear that boxing is the last thing Billy should be doing. He should be maturing as a person, finally taking his role as a father seriously, learning to make his own decisions. The movie, of course, tells us that all that will happen if Billy hits the right person hard enough. It’s a sports-movie cliche, of course, but it’s glaringly wrong here.
Gyllenhaal is certainly impressive to watch, bulking himself up for the role and affecting a mumbling intensity not unlike Eminem (who “Southpaw” was originally developed as a star vehicle for). But the characters around him are all one-note, from Whitaker’s Burgess Meredith-esque trainer to 50 Cent’s duplicitous trainer. And the film has about as much use for its female characters as for the scantily-clad card girls that show up between rounds.
A lot of blood, sweat and tears was obviously poured into “Southpaw.” But very little sense.