Southpaw: Gyllenhaal Towering Performance, Trapped in Conventional Boxing Medlodrama

southpaw_posterJake Gyllenhaal’s performance, not the plot or visuals or sounds, is the real thing in Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s intense, well-acted, if also overly familiar boxing melodrama about the rise and fall (and rise) of a light heavyweight champ.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

As impressive as Jake Gyllenhall’s physical, psychological, and emotional transformation, this talented actor– who continues to challenge himself and surprise us in film after film (remember last year’s Nightwatch?) –can only elevate the picture up to a point above the trepidations.

 

The boxing/sports genre has been around in Hollywood from the early sound era (the 1932 Oscar-winning The Champ, starring Wallace Beery) all the way to the present (Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke in a major comeback), including in between a dozen masterpieces, including The Golden Boy (starring the very young William Holden), Requiem for a Prizefighter (Anthony Quinn), The Harder They Fall, Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull (Robert De Niro’s first and only Best Actor Oscar).

southpaw_12_gyllenhaalWe are so acquainted with the arch of the lead character, still largely male, with the exception of Hillary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s masterful, Million Dollar Baby, which deservedly won the 2004 Best Picture Oscar.  We know all of boxer’s obstacles on the way up, his rapid descent, his need and struggle for redemption, and usually triumphant ending.

Thus, it is quite disappointing that the tale of Southpaw doesn’t include a single new idea, a single fresh motif, a singly unfamiliar character–even the name of the Gyllenhaal character (both first and last)–Billy Hope–is sort of a cliché by now.

Antoine Fuqua, a very skillful director, tries to imbue this rather conventional story with tragic dimensions and the tones of a genuine epic, but to no avail, despite the uniformly high caliber of acting.

southpaw_9_gyllenhaalThe narrative is extremely simple: It takes just weeks after Hope, a man at the top of the world–young, handsome, rich, content, successful– has defended his belt and secured his unblemished status, to go through a rather fatal, if also predictable,  altercation that strips him of all the things he care about–his wife, his family, his house, his possessions, his lifestyle–and, ultimately, his very career.

Visually, too, Fuqua cannot escape the known codes of most boxing pictures, beginning with a lengthy and quite impressive montage of Hope’s rigorous training. Reportedly an avid boxer himself, Fuqua knows his thematic turf inside out, which may be the reason why he tries (but doesn’t succeed) reaching the level of a significant parable or allegory (though I have to admit that the film is not in the least pretentious).

In the Madison Square Garden dressing room, BIlly prepares for his fight against Darius Jones, Maureen inspires and soothes her husband the boxer.  JG, RM

In the Madison Square Garden dressing room, BIlly prepares for his fight against Darius Jones, Maureen inspires and soothes her husband the boxer. JG, RM

A tale of two movies about two transformations.  Nominally, “Southpaw” is the story of Billy Hope striving to build his life back. But the more interesting tale is the one behind the scenes, of Gyllenhaal, as Billy Hope, an actor who continues to develop and may become one of the most iconic of his generation. Who could have predicted, based on his charming but modest beginnings, that a great, quintessentially American actor is about to command our attention and take our breath away.