Harvey Weinstein really wants Jake Gyllenhaal to win an Academy Award. Certainly, the producer/distributor has a knack for shepherding films and performers toward Oscar gold, and the 34-year-old actor has been steadily building a stellar body of work since garnering his first (and only) nomination for Brokeback Mountain a decade ago. Last year alone, the talented thespian delivered knockout performances in both the little-seen thriller Enemy and Nightcrawler, a darkly comic indictment of the media’s lack of ethics. The latter role included a physical transformation in which Gyllenhaal dropped 30 pounds, causing his eyes to pop from his gaunt, haunted face. It was a wonderfully cerebral, wormy performance, and it was snubbed during Oscar season.
With the Weinstein Company’s latest release, director Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, Gyllenhaal performs literal knockouts, bulking up to portray the fictional Light Heavyweight Champion of the World. His anger-prone Billy “The Great” Hope pursues a strategy of pure offense, taking a beating as his opponents wear themselves down, only to unleash his destructive left hook, even as his perennially bloody right eye threatens to see no more.
Billy’s rock is his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, also deserving of more acclaim—and better projects). The only one able to quell his rages, she’s been at his side since she was 12, when both were wards of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. Now, they live in luxury, inhabiting a New York mansion with their bright and extraordinarily well-adjusted young daughter, Leila (11-year-old newcomer Oona Laurence).
The morning after the Madison Square Garden prizefight that opens the film, Maureen “lays down the truth” to Billy, warning that he could end up “punch-drunk” if he doesn’t call it quits on his career. Alas, he’s also fiercely loyal to his lifelong friend and manager, Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), who’s anxious to get Billy to defend his title, perhaps against Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez), a thuggish showboater who interrupted the previous evening’s post-fight press conference with his baiting boasts.
Escobar turns up again at a children’s charity event held at a hotel in Manhattan, where Billy delivers a speech about overcoming childhood hardships. Given that the script by Kurt Sutter (creator of television’s Sons of Anarchy) trades in melodramatic tropes that have been around since at least 1931, the year that King Vidor’s Oscar-winning Wallace Beery/Jackie Cooper boxing vehicle The Champ punched its way into cinemas, tragedy strikes as Billy and Maureen quietly exit the gala through the hotel’s lobby. The silence is broken as Escobar baits the champion prizefighter once again, crudely insulting Maureen, who unsuccessfully attempts to calm Billy. Fists fly, a lone gunshot rings out and Maureen crumples onto the carpet, a crimson pool forming by her abdomen, coughing up even more blood as she dies in her distraught husband’s arms. Hope is lost.
Eight weeks later, prodded by Mains, Billy returns to the ring. The announcers rightly describe the fight as a “bloodletting,” where the shell of a man not only doesn’t defend himself, but refuses to even throw any punches. When a ref tries to call the fight, Billy responds by head-butting him. In the aftermath, Billy’s banned from professional boxing for a year, and without any income or Maureen to watch over him, he loses everything: his fair-weather manager, his money, his cars, his home—and most devastatingly, his daughter, who’s taken away by family services.
It all happens very fast. Too fast, as if Sutter attempted to cram a TV season’s worth of developments into his first feature screenplay. And like The Champ, Fuqua’s film becomes centered on a custody battle. But since this movie is structured as a rise-fall-rise-again redemption story for Billy, the extremely gifted Laurence is used as little more than a prop in the paint-by-numbers script that places Leila under the supervision of Angela Rivera, a social worker played by Naomie Harris (the modern Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s James Bond). She’s given little to do but act concerned during Billy’s visits with his daughter, who actually has to deliver the line “I wish you died instead of Mom!”
And I wish the screenplay focused less on training montages and more on developing the bond between father and daughter, as well as that between Billy and Titus “Tick” Wills (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker), a gruff retired fighter who reluctantly becomes Billy’s new trainer. Tick refuses to train anyone who doesn’t follow the rules of his run-down gym: no drug or alcohol abuse, nor any swearing. Mind you, Tick’s no saint; as Billy learns, he doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches. Predictably, the two gradually win each other’s respect. “My wife would have liked you,” Billy tells Tick, who’s not thrilled that Billy’s headed back to the ring in what’s being touted as the ultimate revenge match in Vegas, with our pugilist hero squaring off against Escobar, the new reigning champion, now managed by Mains.
Fuqua, who brought out the darkness in Denzel Washington when he directed the actor toward an Oscar in Training Day, does the same with Gyllenhaal here. Alas, the foundation behind Billy’s light heavyweight champ is far more lightweight than heavy.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Beau Knapp, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gómez, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Dominic Colon, Malcolm Mays, Rita Ora and Forest Whitaker. Written by Kurt Sutter and Richard Wenk, based on a story by Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.