A satisfying B-movie with an A-movie veneer, “Southpaw” huffs and puffs to punch above its weight. For all the movie’s signifiers of new — seizure-inducing editing in the fight scenes, miles of bling, Eminem throwing down on the soundtrack — it’s an old story of rise, ruin, and redemption in the boxing ring. As old as 1931’s “The Champ,” in fact, and at times nearly as soggy. But this is a genre with especially sturdy bones, and when “Southpaw” connects, which is more often than you might expect, you feel it down to your toes.
The cast makes it matter, certainly more than Kurt Sutter’s heartfelt but trite script. Jake Gyllenhaal renders himself unrecognizable — yes, again — in the role of a scrappy light heavyweight champion named Billy Hope (as in Great White, groan). Billy’s a mess of scar tissue when the movie opens, but he’s at the top of his game, with a 43-0 record, a mansion in the suburbs, a tough-talking wife (Rachel McAdams) who does the thinking for both of them, and a young daughter, Layla (Oona Laurence), who’s starting to think for herself.
Because he has risen so far — both Billy and his wife are products of Hell’s Kitchen orphanages, we’re breathlessly told in the opening scenes — he has further to fall. After an exciting opening bout that establishes the hero’s hyper-aggressive ring persona, a Very Bad Thing happens, and it’s a mark of the movie’s relative daring that A) the Very Bad Thing is allowed to unfold at disturbing length and B) Billy’s subsequent tailspin happens with shocking quickness. Thirty minutes in, he has lost everything — home, family, his manager (50 Cent, agreeably natty and traitorous), and his career — and is reduced to living in a Harlem walk-up and scrounging for a job.
Conveniently located nearby is a dingy neighborhood gym whose proprietor, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), once trained the only boxer to give Billy a real fight. So, yes, we’re here again, with Whitaker giving emotional heft and grace notes to what has been written as a stock Morgan Freeman role with a dash of Mr. Miyagi. Will Billy finally bank his anger, learn some strategy, and make it to a high-stakes Las Vegas revenge bout with preening rival Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez)? Oh, please. The real question is whether “Southpaw” will render that climactic fight anything more than generic. And the answer is . . . not really.
Still, the performances are strong across the board, led by a very intelligent star reveling in the chance to play a pug who has always and only thought with his fists. “Southpaw” yanks hard on our heartstrings in the classic “Champ” tradition during family court scenes involving Billy and his daughter, but Laurence is a capable little under-player, which gives Gyllenhaal space to fill the screen with all that acting. They’re a good onscreen matchup, and for once you don’t mind being manipulated.
The director is Antoine Fuqua, who made his name with “Training Day” (2001) and has since carved out a niche as a capable purveyor of brooding action dramas (“Shooter,” “The Equalizer”) that take themselves a little too seriously. That he’s the relatively rare African-American director to be entrusted with mainstream multiplex fare doesn’t mean he’ll do anything with the racial dissonances of “Southpaw,” with its lone white pugilist in a sport dominated by athletes of color. This is not a filmmaker who thinks outside the box. Instead, Fuqua fills the box with muscled macho craft that runs the risk of turning purple and that caters to an audience’s sentiments rather than its brains.
Which is sometimes all you want out of a boxing movie, “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and 1949’s “Champion” notwithstanding. Not as smart as “The Fighter” and not as achingly epic as “Cinderella Man,” “Southpaw” comes through as a light heavyweight on its own terms. The stress on craft, onscreen and off, extends to a touching and surprisingly delicate musical score by the late James Horner, one of the composer’s last before his death in a June plane crash — and to the film’s dedication to his memory.
★ ★ ½
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal,
Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence,
50 Cent, Miguel Gomez
At: Boston Common,
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: R (language throughout, boxing violence)