Boxing drama “Southpaw” doesn’t spare the pain.
Physical pain, frequent and stinging, is all over the screen, especially on actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloody face. A flood of emotional pain appears, too, in Gyllenhaal’s expression and the expressions of supporting characters.
In “Southpaw,” Gyllenhaal’s Billy “The Great” Hope falls from the top of the world to a slippery bottom rung. He’s hanging on by a finger or two.
Helmed by “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, who’s currently shooting “The Magnificent Seven” in the Baton Rouge area, “Southpaw” joins the long history of boxing movies. The earlier films include such classics as 1947’s “Body and Soul,” “1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” 1980’s “Raging Bull” and great recent examples “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter.”
Because of those many boxing movies, and the many sports movies, comeback and redemption sagas, Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”) earn points for helping “Southpaw” not be one cliché after another.
The movie’s modern presentation of a boxing champ’s world helps it work for a contemporary audience. It’s got hip-hop on the soundtrack, for one thing, cellphones and enormous paydays for winners in the ring and behind the scenes.
“Southpaw” also feels like a biopic, a story about a boxing champ we somehow never heard of. Actually, it’s fiction based on the life of rapper-actor Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem.
Mathers’ team originally wanted screenwriter Sutter to craft a remake of 1979’s “The Champ.” Sutter, the son of a semi-professional fighter, preferred an original idea.
After Mathers dropped out of the project, Gyllenhaal stepped in. A cliché describes the actor’s bloody, sweaty, angry, wrenching performance as Hope — knockout punch.
If “Southpaw” were a based-in-fact biopic, it might have scenes of Hope as an orphan in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. It’s enough, though, to simply mention that as backstory. After starting life with nothing, Hope fought his way to the top.
Hope’s success makes it possible for the fighter, his wife, Maureen, and their young daughter, Leila, to live in a mansion. A leap up from the social services system in which Hope and Maureen spent their childhoods. Scenes of the family’s happy home life sets the audience up for the tragedy that follows.
Rachel McAdams gives Gyllenhaal poignant support as Maureen. The worried boxer’s wife is there at ringside, watching her husband take the punches, feeling them herself.
Following a cinema trend in recent decades toward the visceral, the physicality of boxing scenes in “Southpaw” is felt in the theater seats. The movie opens with a championship fight at Madison Square Garden. Hits land hard on the fighters’ faces, both of whom take realistic beatings.
Terry Claybon, a trainer, fight choreographer and three-time Golden Glove champion, helped make the ring scenes realistic. Gyllenhaal and director Fuqua, showing their commitment to “Southpaw,” both trained with Claybon, who can be seen in the film as fictional trainer Tick Willis’ assistant.
Forest Whitaker delivers another of the film’s winning turns as Willis, a former professional boxer whose training — a mix of technique and soul — and gym on the tough side of town are springboards for Hope’s comeback. Together, Hope and Willis struggle through a physical-spiritual journey that feels just as authentic as the movie’s brutal boxing scenes.
As strong as “Southpaw” is through most of its rounds, it loses some punch in its final scenes. But by then the hard-fought journey to the inevitable big fight has made it a boxing movie winner.