Jake Gyllenhaal is so good in Southpaw, so terrifyingly committed to the role, that we were prepared to overlook the deficiencies and absurdities of the movie. We were so impressed at his physical transformation (after the skeletal Nightcrawler), his movement, the way he spoke like a guy who’s been hit on the head constantly since childhood, that we went along with what is essentially a retread of the greatest hits of boxing movies. His character can take an inhuman amount of punishment, like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull! He’s fighting for his kid, like all the incarnations of The Champ! He’s the underdog, like Rocky Balboa in Rocky! He’s really after redemption, like every boxing hero in every boxing movie we can think of!
Then came what should’ve been the most exciting shot in the movie, the one that we expected to bring the audience to their feet screaming, “Kill him, Jake!” We nearly got up, alright, to scream, “Cheeeeeap!” !@#$%^& ang baduy.
Three things should’ve warned us that this would happen. First, the movie is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who accidentally directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day. Second, the character is named Billy Hope, as in “The Great White Hope”, the white boxer who is supposed to take boxing back from the blacks, Latinos and Filipinos who have dominated it. Third, we learn that the movie is called Southpaw because Billy learns to punch with his left hand. Duh!
And when we saw that shot, everything we chose to ignore because we were rooting for Jake paraded before us like lewd boxing round girls. Billy Hope became the light heavyweight champion of the world with no discernible technique other than to absorb punches until he got so pissed off he fought like a wounded bear? With no notion of defense?? How can he even see through the rivers of blood pouring down his face? (Apparently he sheds several liters of blood in each bout.)
Tragedy strikes, and in a matter of weeks Billy loses everything? Not even a downward spiral, but a full-on splat. He loses wife, child, mansion, cars, all his possessions, his entourage (a tiny fraction of Manny Pacquiao’s—someone take Pac-Man to see this), and goes straight to the flophouse and cleaning toilets in a boxing gym? (As Noel pointed out, he couldn’t rent a smaller house first?) Of course the gym is run by Forrest Whitaker, who becomes his trainer and teaches him strategy—it’s that kind of movie.
Then in a matter of weeks he fights an exhibition match that gets the attention of his scuzzy ex-promoter (50 “Maybe I’m not really bankrupt” Cent) who says he can get his boxing suspension lifted early so that in six weeks he can get a shot at the title against the boxer who caused the tragedy that led directly to his downfall. In case that’s not enough emotion to fuel Billy’s comeback, something bad happens off-screen that is mentioned so casually it might not have happened at all. Cheeeaap.
Naturally we get a training montage featuring a new song by Eminem (the movie was supposed to have been an Eminem project) in which Eminem explains everything to the audience in case they were punch-drunk from being smacked in the face with so many clichés.
At which point we realize that Jake is acting in a vacuum. This movie is completely unworthy of him, or Rachel McAdams who turns in possibly her strongest performance since Mean Girls, or Forest Whitaker whose presence makes up for the clichés he must recite, or Naomie Harris as a child services rep who apparently has only one charge. Jake has brought a bazooka where a flyswatter would’ve been sufficient. All the stuff we see him doing—yelling into a pillow while bleeding, sweating, pouring snot and drooling—is just Acting. Akting na akting.
Of course we are very fond of Jake whom we tend to think of as Heath’s widow. Since Prince of Persia, the franchise that was supposed to make him a box-office star but didn’t, he has been on a roll: Source Code, End of Watch, Enemy, Nightcrawler. Great things are in store for Jake Gyllenhaal, just not Southpaw. Forget it, Jake, it’s Hollywood.
* * * * *
This is how to make a training montage.