READ MORE: First Look: Jake Gyllenhaal Is Ripped In Boxing Pic ‘Southpaw’
Before “Southpaw” develops much of a plot, it showcases Jake Gyllenhaal’s scowling, bloodied face. Captured in unsettling slo-mo, his mouth agape, he unleashes a fearsome battlecry and heads straight for the camera. It’s a frenetic snapshot of intensity that suggests Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in the boxing ring, and one of the only times when the movie escapes the boundaries of its formulaic material. In that brief moment, it offers a viscerally engaging portrait of masculine belligerence driven to its hardiest extremes. But Gyllenhaal’s alarmingly effective presence is enough to act circles around the soapy narrative of a fallen athlete’s comeback so tightly that it crumbles in the very first act.
Gyllenhaal’s distinctive appearance has already proven its capacity to take control of a narrative with mesmerizing results. Last year’s thrilling, bleak tale of a ruthless L.A. paparazzo, “Nightcrawler,” found the actor embodying the role of calculated psychopath with bulging eyes that conveyed intelligence and lunacy in equal measures. That face provided the ideal framework for a story rich with ideas about the dangers of competitive instincts. Whereas “Nightcrawler” found them contained in its fearsome anti-hero’s murky tactics, “Southpaw” unleashes any semblance of subtext for a brash, familiar routine. Though Gyllenhaal’s smallish frame in “Nightcrawler” belied an internal resilience, “Southpaw” finds him beefed up along with the story’s blaring themes of self-determination. As boxing champ Billy Hope, Gyllenhaal plays a ferocious stock character in a movie defined by them.
The setup is shrill, but effective, loaded with the stinging tragedy of a Lifetime movie on steroids: After another grisly victory match, Billy stumbles to his palatial bed still riddled with wounds, where his supportive wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) tries to convince him to quit while he’s ahead for the sake of their 10-year-old daughter (Oona Laurence). He’s vaguely swayed, but it’s hardly enough before Maureen winds up murdered at a public event celebrating the victory. The death, which follows a scuffle between Billy and the gruff fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez), sends Billy into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and hard spending.
In short order, he loses his agent (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) to the competition, his house to debt collectors and his daughter to social services. Billy’s forced to start from scratch and work his way back to the top. Reduced to cleaning the floors at a grimy gym, he joins forces with its disgraced trainer (Forest Whitaker) to seek out one last victory. Any doubts whether he’ll find it?
Initially a project designed for Eminem to echo his own career ups and downs as a quasi-sequel to “8 Mile,” the final version of “Southpaw” as directed by Antoine Fuqua — minus any personal, meta ingredients aside from Gyllenhaal’s developing penchant for creepy roles — has been reduced to unabashed pulp. Fresh from “The Equalizer,” Fuqua ostensibly delivers another darkly virile, uninspired action movie, with the muscular Gyllenhaal intensifying the proceedings whenever he enters the ring. The sappier bits, with Billy’s urgently attempting to reconnect with his daughter, and talking through his woes with Whitaker as they exchange sob stories at a local pub, hit comparatively hollow notes.
Shot in murky gray tones and set to a downbeat score by the late James Horner, “Southpaw” offers plenty of sudden jolts as Billy’s destructive tendencies find him slamming into people and objects alike. But his trajectory unfolds like an overly confident “Rocky” rip-off (not the best timing, given the continuation of the “Rocky” legacy later this year in “Creed”), with plenty of technical pizzazz but little to make it memorable. Except Gyllenhaal’s face.
While he’s certainly no public trainwreck, Gyllenhaal’s filmography has undulated in peculiar ways. Having launched his career with the ambitious mysteries of “Donnie Darko,” where that same visage pointed to mysteries that defied any precise explanation, he’s since drifted through a variety of material. He’s flirted with big studio blockbusters (“The Day After Tomorrow” and the dud “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”), measured character studies (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Zodiac”) and heavy, topical wartime dramas (“Jarhead,” “Rendition,” “Brothers”). The results have been wildly mixed, occasionally yielding brilliant looks at troubled men rich with the ambiguous expressions of their leading man, and sometimes just struggling to keep up with him.
“Southpaw” sags rather quickly into the latter category, but at least doesn’t get in the way of its main talent. When Billy gets fired up, the movie’s conventional ingredients give way to an actor in his element. He may not land a winning role each time out, but at least he’s still in the heat of the ring, swinging away.
“Southpaw” opens nationwide on Friday.