Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Theaters: SOUTHPAW (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Kurt Sutter. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Dominic Colon. (R, 124 mins)

SOUTHPAW is the first big-screen project scripted by Kurt Sutter, who made a name for himself as a writer and producer on THE SHIELD and went on to become the mastermind behind SONS OF ANARCHY. As any viewer of those classic TV shows is aware, Sutter is drawn to strutting, tough-talking bro-huggers whose macho bravado masks a torrent of pain and anguish, men who play by their own rules and go outside the law if necessary if that's what it takes to get to another day because that's what they do. SOUTHPAW plays a lot like a whittled-down series that Sutter might've produced for FX, and as such, there's jumps in the narrative where things can be easily glossed over but there's no natural flow or feel for how one event leads to another. Plus, if you were to remove a few Eminem songs, the constantly spitting blood, and the plethora of F-bombs, and SOUTHPAW is every bit as hokey and melodramatic as any late 1930s/early 1940s Warner Bros. boxing programmer with James Cagney or Arthur Kennedy as a scrappy, wunderkind pugilist and Humphrey Bogart or Barton MacLane as his unscrupulous manager. SOUTHPAW is certainly watchable and has moments that are fine, but it hits every genre trope and cliche like it's bulldozing through a checklist, and yet it behaves as if it's somehow the first boxing movie with a down-and-out hero, once on top of the world, now kicked to the curb with something to prove, going the distance in the fight of his life.

Jake Gyllenhaal is light heavyweight world champion Billy Hope (Sutter never was one for subtlety), currently holding a 43-0 professional record but being urged to slow down by his Noo Yawk-talking wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Billy and Maureen both "came up through the system," and met in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage when they were 12 years old. They've been blessed with fame and fortune and only want the best for their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Maureen, or "Mo," wants Billy to call it a career, but with all of his homeboys on his payroll and his opportunistic manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent, cast radically against type as a piece of shit) always pushing him, Billy has to keep the money rolling in, with a $30 million offer from HBO already on the table for his next fight. All of that goes south when mouthy up-and-comer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) keeps publicly calling him out to grant him a shot at the title. During one such encounter at a gala benefit for the orphanage, Miguel threatens to "take your title and your bitch," and a brawl ensues that results in Mo being shot and killed. Almost overnight, Billy's lawyer informs he's in serious debt and owes back taxes. When a drunk, depressed Billy crashes his car into a tree on the front lawn, the house goes into foreclosure and Child Protective Services take Leila into custody. Almost all of his friends abandon him and Mains dumps him in favor of Escobar (cue Fiddy with the mandatory "Nothin' personal...it's just business, baby"). Billy moves into a shithole apartment in the projects and when a grieving Leila refuses to see him during one of his supervised visits, he has nowhere to go but the ramshackle gym of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), an old-school trainer, blind in one eye from his days in the ring, the kind of taskmaster who charges fifty push-ups for swearing and whose speed and heavy bags are barely held together with duct tape. Through Tick, will Billy learn back-to-the-basics boxing and earn the respect of the kids at the gym, thereby attaining respect for himself? Will he find the fire--the "eye of the tiger," if you will--that once propelled him into the upper echelons of the sport, win back the love of his embittered daughter and symbolically avenge his wife's death by regaining the belt that's has since been won by the ever-boasting Escobar?  If you've ever seen a movie before, you'll know where SOUTHPAW is going long before it gets there.

Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, THE EQUALIZER) leave no cliche untouched throughout SOUTHPAW. They also gloss over subplots that range from undeveloped (the home situation of a kid who hangs out at Tick's gym) to outright abandoned (Escobar's crack-addled wife and the investigation into who shot Maureen). The film seems to think that it can coast by solely on Gyllenhaal's startling physical transformation into the ripped Billy Hope. It's quite a contrast to last year's NIGHTCRAWLER, where the actor lost weight to appear wiry and gaunt as a sleazy, greasy tabloid videographer. Gyllenhaal's lack of an Oscar nomination for NIGHTCRAWLER remains one of the more outrageous Academy snubs in recent years, but his performance in SOUTHPAW reeks of transparent Oscar bait. The role was originally conceived with Eminem in mind, and that seems to be who Gyllenhaal is trying to emulate. As a result, his performance too often feels like mannered posturing and a collection of twitches and flinches. Billy Hope is a man who has a hard time articulating himself to the point where exploding in violence is all he can do, but Gyllenhaal's performance is too much of a performance. Compare his work to that of Channing Tatum in FOXCATCHER--a film I really didn't like, but Tatum is a revelation in it--and you see the difference. Gyllenhaal is simply trying too hard and it ends up backfiring on him. Whitaker makes some good moments out of a stock, cardboard character. Young Laurence does a good job of capturing the sass and fire demonstrated by McAdams in her brief screen time (she's gone by the 30-minute mark), enough that they're both quite believable as mother and daughter, while Naomie Harris can't do much with a superfluous supporting role as Leila's child services case worker (why is she at the final fight between Billy and Escobar?). Fuqua's staging of the fight sequences is mostly well-handled, but occasionally demonstrates an overuse of today's quick-cut, shaky-cam approach--not to the point where it's overwhelming, but enough that you miss the in-the-ring intensity of ROCKY or RAGING BULL.  Never boring but instantly forgettable, SOUTHPAW is one of Fuqua's weakest films and as far as recent boxing movies go, it isn't even as interesting as last year's DTV Dominic Purcell B-movie A FIGHTING MAN, with the film's sporadic positive elements negated by a thoroughly predictable and maddeningly formulaic presentation. Regardless of how much time Gyllenhaal spent getting physically prepped for the role, there isn't a single thing here that hasn't been recycled from a hundred other boxing movies before it.

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