‘Southpaw’
Director:
Antoine Fuqua
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The films of Antoine Fuqua apply hyper-realism to scripts that couldn’t have less to do with reality. From the gruesome deaths that upset the peerlessly silly “Olympus Has Fallen” to the funereal/cartoonish “The Equalizer” to the inane third act that ruined the previously credible-ish “Training Day,” he cranks up intensity so high that he doesn’t seem to notice what characters are so intense about. “Southpaw” is, like most fellow boxing movies, a shameless melodrama, one that mixes “Rocky III” with “Rocky V,” plus bits of Franco Zeffirelli’s unwatchable 1979 remake of “The Champ,” in which Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder tussle over who can mug more. (It’s a draw.)

For its first third, “Southpaw” plays like it’s trying to out-gruesome “The Champ.” Jake Gyllenhaal, in a performance equal to several lines worth of exclamation points, plays the aptly titled Billy Hope, a champion pugilist whose loving, Jersey-trashy wife (Rachel McAdams) worries for his health. Billy, though, is short-fused, and when an up-and-comer (Victor Ortiz), who wishes he had a fraction of the trash-talking charisma of Mr. T’s “Rocky III” guy Clubber Lang, trash talks him, things get so heated it results in the accidental shooting of Billy’s beloved. Then things get even worse, with Billy’s self-destructive streak costing him his mansion, his earnings and his pint-sized daughter (Oona Laurence), depositing him in a Nowhere, Queens fleabag where he tries to restart from scratch.

Much like its protagonist, it takes awhile for “Southpaw” to calm down. What starts out in all caps anguish and handheld over dim lighting — plus an actual scene where Billy actually flips an actual table…but then so few of you saw “Walk Hard” — settles into finding more recognizable grit, and not just the movie equivalent. Billy trains with a super-old school trainer, “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker), who begins as a cliche before revealing more human qualities, like his yen for casual after-hours dive bar boozing. Gyllenhaal, ripped and tatted up (it’s not clear if his neck tattoo trumps the one he had in “Prisoners,” but it’s close), stops popping his eyeballs and finds a touching in-between. He becomes a hothead trying to hold everything back, and Gyllenhaal, eventually, becomes the withdrawn puppy dog seen in “Zodiac” and “Donnie Darko,” only with a volcano inside, ready to erupt.

Thing is, “Southpaw”’s script doesn’t know what to do with Billy Hope 2.0. He gets involved in a comeback bout with the man who may or may not be responsible for his wife’s death.  The script, by “Sons of Anarchy” man’s man Kurt Sutter, sets up complicated problems — Tick’s reticence to OK this fight, Billy worried about succumbing to vengeance — only to abruptly resolve them, though resolve is too strong a word for what happens. The third act plays like it was outlined minutes before happy hour then never reworked. Character arcs never finish arc-ing. Other players, including Naomie Harris’ stern but caring social worker, never take off. The final fight is a big, fat anticlimax building to jerked tears. (For what it’s worth, Laurence never comes off like a precocious Central Casting moppet. When Billy visits her in a home, she exudes a toughness that’s downright chilling.) 

Melodrama isn’t the problem here but lack thereof. There isn’t even a decent training montage, although Billy’s skills magically return over the course of a rote, quick-cutting sequence. It’s as though Fuqua watched how Sylvester Stallone directed his iconic training montages in his “Rocky” entries just to see how to do one that delivers so little pleasure. It’s clear “Southpaw” wants to find the real in a cheesy genre, but all it does is overplay a story that doesn’t have the nerve to realize what it is: a macho weepie, albeit one that falls onto the ropes well before the final round.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge