A flurry of haymakers in the form of boxing movie cliches, “Southpaw” was conceived as a loose remake of “The Champ” — Wallace Beery in 1931, Jon Voight in 1979 — tailored for Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem. The rage-iest rap star on the planet took the initial meetings with director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter. Eminem eventually bowed out, affording Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) and Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) the leeway to rework the project for Jake Gyllenhaal.
Does it succeed? Sort of. It helps if you don’t mind your boxing movies made up of massive granite chunks of previous boxing movies. Just don’t confuse “Southpaw” with a really good example of the genre and its ringside dramatic possibilities, whether old (“The Set-Up,” “Champion”) or newer (“Raging Bull” or the less grandiose “The Fighter”). The script may have hamburger for brains, but Fuqua slams it home with the help of actors who give their all — even when giving a little less might make things more interesting.
“Southpaw” starts not at the bottom or the middle of a fighter’s career, but the tippy-top. Billy “The Great” Hope, the Gyllenhaal character, survived a bruising childhood in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage (there’s still an orphanage somewhere in that midtown Manhattan neighborhood, amid all the trattorias?) alongside his childhood sweetheart, Maureen, “herself a product of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage,” as a boxing match announcer informs us early on. People can talk all they want about Gyllenhaal reinventing himself physically for “Southpaw,” but Rachel McAdams does impressive reinvention work in an atypically gritty role, without all the gym time.
Life is good for these two, now married, with a sweet, bespectacled moppet of a daughter (Oona Laurence). Billy’s the light heavyweight champ, with 43 straight ring victories. In narrative terms he’s just begging for a tragedy. When shots ring out after Billy’s charity event argument with an up-and-coming, trash-talking boxer (Miguel Gomez), the world cracks open. Billy spirals into near-instantaneous poverty, unemployment, heavy drinking, suicidal craziness and indecipherable levels of Method mumbles, while his daughter is taken into the custody of child services. Quicker than you can say “I want my daughter back!” Billy’s in court, screaming “I want my daughter back!” while his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) offers a sympathetic but unreliable shoulder to cry on.
Gyllenhaal’s never comfortable playing fast talkers; he’s more of a slow burner. In “Southpaw” each new slow burn leads to overturned chairs and tables followed by hand-held close-ups of Gyllenhaal’s grief and anguish. Billy must learn to be a smarter, less angry warrior in the ring. The champ must retrain himself for life inside and outside the ring, under the tutelage of wizened trainer Tick Willis. He’s played by the formidable and ever-welcome Forest Whitaker, whose way of humanizing artificial constructs borders on the miraculous. “Stopping punches with your face — that’s not defense,” Whitaker says, in one of the better lines.
Fuqua’s visual technique mirrors the unreformed rageaholic Billy, not the cleaned-up, more selective Billy. The fights look like a hundred other fights we’ve seen in the movies, with slightly zazzed, sped-up action and quick cutting that’s more expedient than inspired. The same can be said of the whole movie, which may well find a large audience hungry for a simple, blunt fairy tale about a hunk with a heart as big as Madison Square Garden.
Review by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune