Gyllenhaal is fantastic. A terrific boxing film that makes the Mayweather-Pacquiao match look like a kindergarten puppet show.
I’m a boxing fan and with some ultra-secret information that turned out not to matter in the pas de deux of the “Fight of the Century”, my side bets turned out to be all losers. I neglected to entertain the possibility that the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight would be choreographed by ballet master George Balanchine – from his grave.
I kept thinking about those 2.2 million Filipino workers around the world. Would Pacquiao let them down?
Light heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has an amazing record of 46-0. Billy has taken plenty of punches coming up from a real Dicksonian childhood. Abandoned to be raised in an orphanage where he learned to box, the only things missing was debtor’s prison and Ebenezer Scrooge as his trainer. Billy’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), also came up the hard way in the same orphanage.
Maureen is tough and makes all decisions for Billy. Maureen is very involved in Billy’s boxing career. His promoter-manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) has been with him since the beginning and guided his career.
Even though Billy has just fought to defend his title and won, Maureen knows enough about boxing to tell him he was not at his best in the ring. She wants him to stop boxing. Maureen looks like she has her “shit together” but Billy reminds her that boxing is the reason they are living in a 20,000 square foot mansion overlooking the Long Island Sound, employ a staff, her designer dress, and their cherished 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), has a nanny and a private school education.
Leila has her mother’s no-nonsense, “treat Billy like a savant Christ Child” attitude. She could easily oversee Billy’s career – if anything were to happen to Maureen.
Billy has to continue fighting. Maureen might know a “mouse” from a “haymaker”, but she’s a lousy financial planner. That mansion must be heavily mortgaged or a rental because Billy has been offered a 3-bout contract with HBO and he needs the money. The contract must meet Maureen’s approval before he signs. With his slow speech and downward gaze, he’ll never be a sports commentator or go on the lecture circuit.
Billy has a contender, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), that his management has been avoiding. Escobar has a “crew” but apparently no representation. So Escobar has to shadow Billy everywhere demanding a shot. He’s younger, hungrier, and has a raw charisma. Why won’t Billy give him a title fight? Is he afraid of getting hit by a real man?
From 2009, critics had accused Floyd Mayweather Jr. of dodging Filipino southpaw Manny Pacquiao. It was either because Mayweather did not want to fight a southpaw of Pacquiao’s skill or he was waiting until both got old. Then arrange one obscene payday, show up, and dance around. Neither of them cared what the fans would think about the outcome or the hope that their match would re-invigorate the sport of boxing.
Escobar provokes Billy by publicly mocking him and then, anticipating his reptilian brain’s reaction, makes sexual comments about what he’d do to Maureen after he knocks Billy out.
This encounter takes place at a charity event. Maureen pleads with Billy not to respond and to keep walking away. If Billy had listened to his wife, The Book of Job would not have rained down on his head. He turns and attacks Escobar.
This has happened before. Boxing promoter Don King bled Mike Tyson dry. When Tyson finally realized the magnitude of King’s actions – he was financially destitute – he punched King to the floor in a hotel foyer, later ending up in court.
In a way, Maureen dying from being hit by a stray bullet is due to Billy not walking away. I like this subtle, but important, plot point. Billy’s descent was based on his guilt. He was responsible.
With Maureen’s death and the pressure to continue fighting, Billy chooses punishment in the ring as his penance. With his career in shambles, Billy loses the house, everything he owns and his daughter is taken from him and made a ward of the court.
Just with a backpack to his name – damn, Maureen was bad with keeping any of the 46-0 purse money – Billy has to rent a tiny room and decides to win his daughter back. He goes to the only place he knows – a boxing club. He begs a former boxer, now owner of a gym, trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to work with him. Tick reluctantly agrees if Billy becomes the gym’s janitor. Billy is a champion but Tick teaches him another way of boxing using scientific techniques of placement, angles, and the all-important foot work.
Tick trains Billy to use the same style that Mayweather is known for – the Philly Shell/Shoulder Roll. The director, Antoine Fuqua, has been boxing for years and the training sequences show some of the differences between “orthodox fighters” and “southpaw fighters”. Tick also trains Billy in the same “high guard” stance Mayweather primarily used against opposite footed opponents.
Fuqua enlisted his personal boxing trainer, Terry Claybon, to develop Gyllenhaal into a believable champion. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal trained side-by-side twice a day, every day for months with Claybon. They did it all: the tires, the sparring, the sprints, the long runs and the sit-ups. Fuqua eventually scaled back to once a day – he had other things to do – while Gyllenhaal – the one who would be on camera – continued.
It’s an astonishing transformation. It is one of the truly remarkable thing that actors do to authentically portray a character. Christian Bale holds the top honor for six complete transformations. He lost half his body weight for THE MACHINIST, joined the 1% for AMERICAN PSYCHO, became a meth head for THE FIGHTER, and then let it all go for AMERICAN HUSTLE. Actors who transform their bodies so radically are showing pure, selfless dedication. Charlene Theron ranks No. 2 for MONSTER and in my opinion, Tom Hardy comes in at No. 3 for BRONSON. Robert De Niro transcends the list for his iconic role in RAGING BULL.
Fuqua, Gyllenhaal, cinematographer Mauro Fiore, and the entire production have delivered an authentic boxing film.
Gyllenhaal has crafted a genuinely unique character. Neither he nor Forrester ever slip into Oscar-bait acting. (Although Gyllenhaal certainly deserves one of the nominations for Best Actor.) With SOUTHPAW and his dedication to bring authenticity to his character with subtleness of mood and emotion, Gyllenhaal continues his reign as a first-rate actor. Last year he showed the same instinctual understanding of his Louis Bloom character in NIGHTCRAWLER. Billy Hope is not a verbally expressive man, yet Gyllenhaal shows us exactly what he is experiencing internally.
The screenplay is by Kurt Sutter who, because he created “Sons of Anarchy”, has several years of all-encompassing fan love. He can do no wrong…so far. And while Sutter keeps away from making the characters cartoons or remind us of past boxing movies, he skips over the important aspects of Billy’s downward spiral. How the hell did Billy get to be champion without a corporation comprised of highly-qualified people guiding him? Could Billy Hope crash and burn with today’s organizational clout managing an athlete’s every move? Are boxers the go-to character for movies about redemption? Is the only true boxing movie ON THE WATERFRONT?
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at firstname.lastname@example.org.