Director Antoine Fuqua’s films have a busy surface. The drama is fast and furious. His characters bleed, sweat and cry on each other, often all at once. Such restlessness can give a viewer motion sickness. You need an actor like Denzel Washington to harness and steady a Fuqua film, as he did in “Training Day” and “The Equalizer.”
“Southpaw,” Fuqua’s latest, doesn’t have a star of Denzel’s wattage. But he does have Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives another one of those transformative performances that will have some viewers impressed and others rolling their eyes.
We last saw Gyllenhaal, gaunt and sunken-eyed, in “Nightcrawler.” Here, he puts on muscle and tattoos to play Billy Hope, a raging bull of a boxer whose bouts are characterized by his sickening ability to take a punch — or two, or ten.
Everything’s working out for Billy at first. He’s just defended his spotless record, he’s living in a lavish mansion with his beautiful wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), and he’s just about ready to sign a 30-million-dollar contract with HBO.
Then, wouldn’t you know, disaster strikes and Billy’s life crumbles. He soon finds himself broke and near suicidal, while his daughter is wrenched away from him into the care of child services. It will take all his will and spirit to reinvigorate himself both inside and out the ring (yawn).
The script, from Kurt Sutter (creator of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”), sounds notes we’ve heard so often in countless sports dramas that we can practically hum them to ourselves as we watch. Fuqua’s only hope (sorry) is that by hitting the notes with sincerity and aggression, we want to listen anyway.
We almost do, thanks largely to Gyllenhaal, who essentially plays a rabid dog who was domesticated by his wife. Gyllenhaal, like Fuqua, mostly plays it from the outside. Not much looking like a boxer, he snarls, trains, and mumbles his character into existence, trying to drill the psychology into a movie mostly interested in physicality. It’s admirable, if highly-pitched, acting, the kind that looks like exhausting work but mostly just exhausts the viewer.
Gyllenhaal makes his mark (more like a crater), but McAdams also does strong, supple work in just a few scenes despite a shaky New Yawk accent. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is slick and sleazy as Billy’s manager. And Forest Whitaker shows up as a wise old trainer named Tick Wills, taking over the job from Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby” (he’s even given the same bad eye). Whitaker has that uncanny ability to cool even the most hot-blooded movie. He lets “Southpaw” breathe a little and even let a joke loose (“Stopping punches with your face, that’s not defense,” he quips).
Still, the jokes are few and far between. “Southpaw” fits Billy’s style: it’s all about pummeling and getting pummeled, only it’s just the viewers feeling assaulted. If you can stay conscious for its entirety, however, you’ll be hard pressed not to cheer the film’s Big Fight. There’s drama! Suspense! A fight between Good and Evil! Slow-motion knockouts!
In effect, everything you wanted but didn’t get from that Mayweather/Pacquiao fight back in May.