What happens when a fine actor is terribly miscast? It’s like pushing a dancer into a minefield. Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding with verbose, well-defined characters. As a sociopathic video newsman in last fall’s “Nightcrawler,” he kept his electrifying, wordy dialogue from ever feeling windy.
With almost nothing to say, he has less to do, and little to contribute. “Southpaw” pulls him into a story that feels like a pulp ’40s novel about boxing — old material served warmed over. As a troubled slugger, Gyllenhaal is impressively muscle-bound, but gives no knockout performance. His work drags on like 12 rounds of fistfight fatigue.
The film is two hours of raging bull. Gyllenhaal stars as boxing champ Billy Hope. As soon as you hear his name, you know you’re entering a film of simple metaphors and trite clichés. The world champion of his weight class, Billy has used the ring to express all the resentment that he still carries from his youth in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. He has won four dozen fights not through savagery, but a masochistic willingness to take every opponent’s punch until they are exhausted and ready for Billy’s knockout.
The orphanage also introduced Billy to his lifelong love Mo (Rachel McAdams), equally abandoned. They have a loving marriage, a charming daughter (Oona Laurence) and the uncountable gobs of money a boxing championship provides. The supportive brains of the operation, Mo wants Billy to retire soon, worried that a few more fights could leave him permanently punch drunk. He follows their “you decide, I’ll provide” arrangement until an unexpected tragedy involving a rival boxer knocks Billy’s livelihood and future to death row. And what way can he try to regain his life other than returning to the ring for vengeance?
The screenplay, credited to “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, follows a story arc somewhere between ancient history and prehistoric. The penniless Billy meets a hard-nosed veteran trainer (played with never-say-die gusto by the legendary Forest Whitaker) who leads him through the same workout montages you have seen a thousand times before. Whitaker owns every moment of their conversations, while the star murmurs and mutters. Gyllenhaal spends more time than he should in macho daddy scenes with Laurence, one of the most theatrical, look-at-me-act young performers I have seen.
The hyperviolent boxing scenes draw the most attention from director Antoine Fuqua, who has nothing on his mind except “Southpaw’s” look. That’s a sad state of affairs because he made 2001’s “Training Day,” one of the best thrillers in the past 20 years. Here Fuqua employs trick fight ring effects like point of view shots and shifting focus, but he shoots every sequence without style or substance. Half-second slices of uppercut, jab, straight right and wide swing build to utterly predictable conclusions. How and why, reason and meaning, not so much. If we want great visuals alone, we can go to a visual art exhibit. Without a solid story, there is no movie.
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, the hip-hop star who plays Billy’s less than trustworthy manager, made headlines similar to the hero’s story line last week as he filed for bankruptcy after losing his fortune. I think the film had something to do with it.