Saturday, July 25, 2015
Another fully committed performance by the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal sets the boxing family drama “Southpaw” above most pretenders to the throne.
He’s Billy (“The Great,” though not “The Great White”) Hope, the reigning WBC junior middleweight champion, whose rope-a-dope style begins to wear on his wife Maureen (a sexy Rachel McAdams) as Billy absorbs more rounds of blows before fighting back. She sees through Billy’s success to the beaten-down man inside, and wants him to heal for their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). As good as Gyllenhaal is, he plays Billy as haunted and drawn-in even at the height of his career, so it’s not clear whom Mo thought she was getting. More backstory might have invested us more deeply in him as a person. He grew up in an orphanage? So did Annie.
At a fundraiser for said orphanage, a cocky challenger named Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez) vows to take both Billy’s [wife] and his belt. A fistfight between the two men devolves into a gunfight between their entourages that ends with Maureen dying in Billy’s arms. This has the effect of funneling Leila into the family court system despite her sobbed pleas to stay with her father. Billy – de-licensed after head-butting a referee, his lavish home and furnishings repossessed soon thereafter - must submit to regular drug testing and anger management classes and find a steady job if he hopes to win Leila back. Meanwhile, upset at him for the loss of her mother and their comfortable life together, she tells her child services agent (Naomie Harris) she doesn’t want to see him.
At rock bottom, Billy climbs up the proverbial steep and very narrow stairway to Wills Gym, owned by the former boxing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) and run as a place to keep promising youngsters off the streets. Tick once trained a fighter who the undefeated Billy admits had him beat were it not for his then-manager Jordan Mains’ (Curtis Jackson) buying off the judges. After the requisite “I’ve got nothing to say to you” scene, Tick agrees to let Billy practice there days and clean the place up at night. And when Billy impresses at a charity eight-rounder and lands a shot at the title now held by Escobar, Tick commits to train him for six weeks. This is where most movie trainers become combination Zen masters and motivational speakers, but Kurt Sutter’s and Richard Wenk’s script is a cut above.
Tick, who’s every bit as aloof and unrevealing as Billy, does tell him boxing is about what’s between the ears, but his parental advice (“Let her do her thing, and don’t think that her thing has anything to do with your thing”) is almost incoherent – and I mean that as a compliment. This is not the standard (so often black) life coach imparting mystic wisdom but an equally scarred and inarticulate practitioner of the sweet science shuffling between a built-in cot in his office and the corner bar where he “doesn’t drink,” but does. Whitaker – whose soft voice often prevents the audience from fully connecting with him – is as appealing here as he’s ever been.
Jackson gives a canny performance in the nicely nuanced role of Jordan Mains, who wants the best for his fighters but always comes back to “if it makes money, it makes sense.” Harris also brings a delicate touch to Angela, the child services agent, who quietly and determinedly proves to Billy that her prioritization of Leila’s welfare above all else need not – and ought not – come at his expense. I was disappointed, though, to see this fresh character flown out to Vegas to chaperone Leila while they cheer Billy on from the locker room at Caesars. A number of reviewers have fallen in love with young Laurence (Richard Roeper called her “movie-adorable”), but I actually didn’t care for her, and found the frequent cutaway shots to her pained reactions as Daddy gets pummeled slightly distasteful.
Director Antoine Fuqua – of last year’s “The Equalizer” - is no more than a highly competent craftsman of mainstream action movies, but no less, either. “Southpaw” looks and sounds great, the boxing scenes uncommonly realistic. The locations throughout New York have the ring of authenticity. “Southpaw” is genre material elevated by strong performances and top-drawer production values. It’s closer to three stars than to two.