The Fix Is In
by Glenn Lovell
Billy Hope is cruisin’ for a bruisin’.
How could it be otherwise? Billy, like Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, is “Top of the world, Ma!” The product of Hell’s Kitchen and Rikers Island, he has beat the odds to become World Light Heavyweight Champion. The title comes with beautiful wife, cherubic daughter … sprawling New York mansion and compound.
Yes, he has it all, a sure sign he’s about to hit the canvas hard, for a full 10 count.
And that’s exactly what happens in “Southpaw,” directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy, a punchy, guilt-ridden boxer who, like every pugilist dating from Wallace Beery in “The Champ,” has nowhere to go but down, down … down, paving the way for the Act 2 humbling, followed by Act 3 redemption.
Billy’s world doesn’t just collapses, it implodes, as in disappears, when he’s goaded into a fight by a rival and his wife (Rachel McAdams) is killed by a stray bullet. Billy, right on schedule, comes unglued, losing his fortune to a crooked manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), his home and custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). (No need for spoiler alert: it’s all in the preview.)
This is one of those Only in Hollywood concoctions where it’s not enough for the protagonist to hit the skids, he has to wind up destitute, cleaning bathroom stalls.
A sucker for boxing melodramas and, since “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Nightcrawler,” a huge Gyllenhaal fan, I wanted to like “Southpaw” a lot more than I did. The ABC predictability of the plot was a problem. So too were the mounting contrivances, including the fair-weather manager and entourage who immediately abandon the champ, the violent outbursts in family court, the crusty gym owner (Forest Whitaker) who has vowed never to train a professional boxer but changes his mind and teaches the hard-charging Billy a more defensive strategy just in time for the Big Comeback Fight.
Speaking of which, not even Las Vegas would sanction a “revenge bout” between a grieving husband and the man responsible for his wife’s death.
Eminem, who produced the electrifying soundtrack, was originally cast as Billy. This would have been his first film since “8 Mile.” Then he got cold feet and dropped out. He may have left the the production but his crouched posture and mumbled, sing-dingy delivery didn’t. And that’s the problem. Instead of creating his own Billy, Gyllenhaal, in patches, went with Eminem’s. Instead of a performance we get a self-conscious, scalp-massaging impression. And because we’re always aware of this we never commit fully to this grittier-than-usual Cinderella fable.
Still, I have to say I choked up a couple of times in the scenes between Gyllenhaal and the kid playing Leila. They have undeniable chemistry. Also, though I had no doubt about its outcome, I found myself flinching during the final fight. That, of course, has a lot to do with the punishing, cathartic ring action, but it has more to do with the still-serviceable formula. We want to see Rocky — I mean, Billy — persevere, even if we know the fix is in.
SOUTHPAW ✮✮1/2 With Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. Directed by Antoine Fuqua; scripted by Kurt Sutter. 123 min. Rated R (for profanity, bloody shooting, bruising ring action)