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‘Southpaw’ has the heart but could have used more brains

“Don’t get hit too much,” implores the wife of Billy “the Great” Hope as he’s about to climb into the ring and defend his light heavyweight title for the fourth time.

Fat chance.

That’s just not the way Billy fights in “Southpaw,” a good, new tear-jerking boxing film with a great central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy. He seems to fight his opponents with his rage and with his face. He lets them roil up his anger and then shoves his uncovered face into harm’s way. After the punches come, he taunts them with “is that all you got?” Then, when things work well, he counterpunches their lights out. (See Muhammad Ali.)

His street-tough style is enough to do extraordinary damage to the face that’s always on the business end of his opponents’ work. His after-fight ritual with his adorable daughter Layla is to let her count the cuts on his face before drifting off to sleep. “Eight,” she says, looking at the hamburger that is his visage after he wins that title fight.

He can’t control the bleeding, though, not even the following morning when long ropey strings of blood suddenly start dripping from his mouth. His record is 43-0, but his wife isn’t happy about it. No more, she says, in their immense suburban castle surrounded by his cars. The money’s fine, she tells him. So is the undefeated record. But “it’s the way you fight,” she says. “You’re taking too many hits … You’re going to be punch drunk in two or three years, if you keep this up.”

Worse, it turns out. In a matter of weeks from that moment, a horrible calamity befalls Billy’s family entirely as a result of his inability to contain his anger. He loses everything in short order – family, money, cars, castle, title, boxing license and the will to fight and prevail. The press starts calling him “The Great White Dope.”

We all know that boxing movies have never really been about boxing. They’re brutal allegories of faith and redemption. The ring is where we see humanity, wisdom and righteousness pounded into men in the most brutal possible way.

“Southpaw” is old school to the max, but it’s extremely well-directed by Antoine Fuqua, an often-surprising (“End of Watch”) actor’s director who’s a good fellow for any actor to work with if he wants to be taken seriously. After all, didn’t Denzel Washington win an Oscar for Fuqua’s “Training Day?” (Yes. He deserved it, too.)

“Southpaw” began as a stunt that got very lucky and turned into an actual film with a first-rate performance in the middle.

The stunt was that the film originally conceived Eminem in the role of Billy. He might have been very good. But the movie would have been, at best, permanently damned by “look how good Eminem is.” The “get serious” upgrade at the top of the cast was Gyllenhaal when Eminem decided to go on tour.

Now we’re talking. Gyllenhaal has been on a roll for a while. In full De Niro “Raging Bull” mode, Gyllenhaal put himself into the role body and soul. He remade his physique completely, learned how to box from scratch and turned into a mumbling mess who barely knows how to communicate with anyone except his wife and daughter.

He mumbles to himself like a man who has always left everything human, from child-rearing to career management, in his wife’s immensely capable hands. Some are comparing Gyllenhaal here to Stallone but let’s get real. Stallone’s act has always been that he’s an articulate bruiser who simply can’t e-nun-ci-ate. He’s got marbles in his mouth.

Billy’s got marbles in his head. And, after calamity, despair, too.

So for two hours, we watch the redemption of human wreckage played out in the boxing ring, as a new boxing manager played by Forest Whitaker teaches Billy, at his grungy gym, what he drolly calls something Billy never knew before – “defense.”

In other words, Billy will no longer be a Marciano-Chuvalo kind of fighter winning by masochism and muscles. He’s going to have to discover a brain somewhere within, a la Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.

And he’ll have to discover the heart and soul to get back to his suffering daughter.

Tears are jerked here. And a whole lot of punches draw blood.

Gyllenhaal is terrific as Billy. He’s found an inarticulateness here that has a personality of its own. It comes from a continuation of uncontrollable rage and equally uncontrollable shame. Terrific stuff – good enough for an Oscar if the film were better.

Directors, though, aren’t judged by big performances but by all of them. Look at Rachel McAdams, who gets a chance to be juicy and sexy again while she appears Sunday evenings in “True Detective” in a role where she might as well be a flyweight boxer. Look at Whitaker as Billy’s new manager; and rapper 50 Cent as his slick, Don Kingish old one, who seems to have a weird touch of Sportin’ Life from “Porgy and Bess.”

The script could have been a lot smarter and less in a boxing movie template but it all works well enough. One of the producers, with his son Peter, is former Buffalonian Alan Riche. The film is dedicated to its composer James Horner, who died in a self-piloted plane crash last month.



3 stars

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, 50 Cent, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Running time: 123 minutes

Rating: R for language, brutal boxing scenes and very brief prelude to sex.

The Lowdown: Boxing’s light heavyweight champion loses everything and struggles to climb back into the center of his own life.

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