If you know one thing about Southpaw, which tells the story of a champion boxer who loses everything and fights to get most of it back, it’s that its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, went through a crazy training regimen to prepare for the role. It comes up in every interview, and winds up being the focal point of most of them. For The New Yorker, Gyllenhaal went back to the gym where he trained, talking about his preparations for becoming the bruising Billy Hope, a mumbling, ferocious Hell’s Kitchen orphan who willed himself to greatness. In the Associated Press, we heard how the film’s boxing adviser initially worried that Jake couldn’t cut it as a prizefighter, prompting director Antoine Fuqua (a boxing aficionado who trained as a fighter himself) to work out alongside his star for months, the two men preparing together for the role. “I trained twice a day for five months, and I was basically just driven by the fact that I was afraid that I was going to look like an idiot when we got to shooting,” Gyllenhaal has said, later adding, “I figured if I trained twice a day, that it would make five months 10 months.”
These behind-the-scenes stories are meant to be impressive, an indication of Gyllenhaal’s commitment to a physically demanding role. Such anecdotes aren’t unique to sports movies, of course: Especially around Oscar time, we hear about actors going through impossible rigors to do justice to their characters. (For instance, Eddie Redmayne meticulously charted the different muscles affected by ALS at different stages of the disease in order to portray Stephen Hawking over the years, netting himself an Academy Award in the process.)
But there’s something unique about the training stories for a boxing movie, something designed to spur admiration and envy in a way that’s uniquely male. When Gyllenhaal bulks up and learns to become a world-class fighter, he’s not just committed to a role—he’s giving himself over to a primal kind of masculinity, embracing an old-school notion of knuckle-busting machismo. Let Redmayne struggle with the delicate nuances of Hawking’s disease—this is about becoming a killing machine, a Real Man, right in front of our eyes.
Among Southpaw’s other problems, the film is utterly swamped by this notion of man’s-man masculinity. Just about everything in this so-so drama is set to Ultra Macho, most every piece of character development and line of dialogue wrapped up in guy codes of behavior. Gyllenhaal’s performance fits right in, in all the wrong ways. Like the movie, his style is lumbering and blunt, straining for us to take notice. It’s the sort of earnest, romanticized masculinity I don’t have a lot of use for.
Gyllenhaal has been an underrated actor for years, some of his best roles in recent times coming from roles in which he’s either the sensitive or ineffectual guy in the ensemble. (I’m thinking his obsessive Robert Graysmith in Zodiac or the adoring Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain.) Even when he goes darker, like in his dual role in Enemy or as the good cop in End of Watch, he projects an empathetic soulfulness, a quiet humanity that never feels orchestrated.
Maybe that’s why I was less enamored than most critics with his performance in last year’s Nightcrawler. Though he was unquestionably committed to the role of a conniving sociopath—speaking of actorly preparations, he lost a ton of weight to play Louis Bloom—it was a rare example of Gyllenhaal “performing” rather than letting his natural charm and intelligence shine through. He was good, but it was the first time I ever noticed him actively trying; as a result, Louis Bloom as a character never transcended the intensity of the actor playing him.
That same problem haunts Southpaw, as it does our perception of what constitutes good acting. Whether it’s the profiles of Gyllenhaal in the lead-up to the movie’s release or just the movie itself, you can’t escape all the work that went into Billy Hope. We’re not meant to sit back and be absorbed by this film; instead, we’re supposed to take careful notice and be awed by the filmmakers’ dedication. Pay attention, everybody: There’s some grown-man business going on over here.
Written by Sons of Anarchy boss Kurt Sutter, Southpaw follows Billy as everything goes wrong in his life almost simultaneously. First, his beloved, street-smart wife (Rachel McAdams), who serves as a voice of reason and worries that he’s getting too beaten-up to keep boxing, is accidentally killed during a melee with his main rival (Miguel Gomez). Heartbroken, Billy isn’t focused enough for his next bout, and loses his championship belt. Then he discovers he’s broke, and winds up forced to sell the house and hand over his daughter (Oona Laurence) to child protective services. Little of this is handled in a realistic manner, partly because it’s meant to suggest a cumulative emasculation of Billy the raging bull.
In movies like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, Fuqua managed to examine outmoded forms of masculinity with a semi-critical eye, but here, he buys in. Billy is just one more male movie character whose path to redemption requires him to suck it up, tough it out, rub some dirt on it, and get back into the ring to regain his glory. This journey, naturally, is aided by an older, wiser ex-boxer (Forest Whitaker) who reluctantly retrains the kid, teaching him a different, more sophisticated fighting style that—wouldn’t you know it?—doubles as a nifty metaphor for Billy’s personal growth. (Rather than just barreling forward during his bouts and getting pummeled in the process, Billy will learn to bob and weave, coming to understand the importance of fighting smarter, not harder.)
Because Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are fine actors, their interactions have a gritty believability to them. But it’s hard to care too much about their characters when they’re just walking sports-movie clichés. Whitaker’s natural calm dominates every performance he gives, but Gyllenhaal is all inarticulate mutterings and beefy self-consciousness. It’s the opposite of naturalness, which runs counter to our experience with exceptional athletes: They have a star power that makes their magnificence seem effortless. But with Billy Hope, all you see is the effort Gyllenhaal puts into him, the dedication a heavy badge of honor.
Maybe we should put the blame on Raging Bull. For that 1980 film, Robert De Niro famously trained with real-life counterpart Jake La Motta for a year, even taking part in three actual boxing matches, to bring a sense of authenticity to the part. (The actor, who won his second Oscar for his portrayal, also gained 60 pounds to play La Motta after his retirement.) An actor’s actor, De Niro embodied the the sort of commitment that has become a fetish for performers (especially in boxing films) ever since.
A movie like Southpaw, however, shows what a dead end that approach can be. Billy Hope and De Niro’s Jake La Motta actually have a lot in common: They’re menaces in the ring but hulking disasters outside of it, their inarticulate insecurities struggling to be healed. You feel the connection to De Niro in Gyllenhaal’s performance, but more broadly, you see the way that younger actors, especially male actors, worship transformations of the sort that De Niro executed in Raging Bull. Viewers aren’t immune, either: We’ve been conditioned to be wowed by people who play characters with diseases and disabilities, or who play someone fundamentally different than themselves.
But in the boxing movie, there’s an extra twist, a sense of macho righteousness in all the grueling preparation that’s often paired with the main character’s trial-by-fire ordeal: He must be stripped of everything, be rebuilt stronger and better, and then defeat the other man. Both the actor’s and the character’s rigorous training is glorified, the physical and mental ordeal a proving ground that paves the way to victory at the end. (For the actor, victory comes via rave reviews and awards.)
Done well, a boxing movie can hit familiar notes but still be incredibly affecting. But with Southpaw, you see the lazy assumptions being made, the rank no-pain-no-gain obviousness. There’s a lot of effort here, but not nearly enough achievement. Southpaw isn’t very good, but apparently that’s not supposed to matter: It’s apparently enough that everybody tried real hard.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.