Connoisseurs of boxing sometimes wax eloquent on the nuances of the sport, but boxing movies tend to value impact over finesse. Few genres are so reliably and bluntly conventional. Primal stories - rise and fall, ruin and redemption, the love of a good woman - are punctuated by scenes of carefully choreographed pugilism. Violence and sentimentality dance in the ring, and the audience leaves satisfied, if not exactly surprised.
If Antoine Fuqua's new film, Southpaw, were a boxer, if would be a lot like its hero, a light heavyweight named Billy Hope. Played with downcast eyes and rock-hard abs by Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy is a bleeder and a brawler, an earnest, inarticulate guy with a ferocious punch and not much in the way of grace. In case his last name isn't a broad enough hint, you might take a moment to read his tattoos. "Fighter" and "Father" are scrawled along his sinewy forearms. His back says "Fear No Man." Only ironically, and late in the game, do the words "Great White" precede his name.
Not that Billy has much privilege to check, racial or otherwise. We first encounter him defending his title with a late-round knockout at Madison Square Garden, which an announcer notes is a few blocks (and also "a million miles") from the Hell's Kitchen orphanage where the champ grew up. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), is also a product of the foster-care system, and they've gone to great lengths to ensure that their beloved 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), is protected from the kind of life they knew. Billy throws the punches, and Maureen, as he puts it, "makes all the plans."
But you can't plan for every twist of fate. Unless you're a screenwriter, of course, and the author of the "Southpaw" script, Kurt Sutter, torques this baby until it screams. A loudmouth challenger (Miguel Gomez) taunts Billy at a charity event. Words are exchanged, fists fly, and a gunshot robs Billy of everything he has. He loses his wife, his mansion, his cars, his title and custody of Leila, who is placed in child-services limbo under the eye of a social worker played by Naomie Harris. Abandoned by his manager (Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent), Billy sets out to take back what he can. He walks into a scruffy New York gym and finds a battered, philosophical trainer with the conveniently allegorical name of Wills and the melancholy mien of Forest Whitaker.
There isn't really much more you need to know. The plotting is somehow both flat-footed and operatic in its absurdity. Character arcs are tangled, flattened and foreshortened. Common sense is knocked silly. But Fuqua has never been a director to let ridiculousness get in the way of visceral action. With a new Eminem song tucked into one of the montages, an old-style melodramatic score by James Horner (one of his last, sadly; he died in June and the film is dedicated to his memory) and plenty of muscular brawling, "Southpaw" is effective without being terribly convincing.
The same goes for Gyllenhaal, whose recent performances have been both impressive and more than a little mannered - bouts of showy extremism. In "Southpaw," his mumbling seems as studious as his fastidious enunciation in Nightcrawler. His physicality feels more natural than his diction, though. Watching Billy train for a fight or struggle to stand up straight the next day, you believe you are witnessing the discipline and agony of a real boxer.
And you're definitely watching a real boxing movie, which is of course not the same as a movie about the reality of the sport (despite participation by the former multiweight champion Roy Jones Jr., who plays himself). Even biopics about practitioners of the sweet science ("Raging Bull" partly excepted) have a habit of preferring formula to verisimilitude, but while "Southpaw" sings a familiar tune, it features some pretty appealing players. There are worse things to see at the multiplex than McAdams playing a tough cookie standing by her man, or Whitaker speaking hard truths over a glass of whiskey or a battered Bible, or 50 Cent smiling sharkishly in a beautiful suit.
It wouldn't be a fight picture without a ruthless businessman, a gruff coach or a suffering wife. And this wouldn't be a review of a boxing picture without a few cliches of its own. I wish I could say Southpaw was a knockout, or even a contender, that it went the distance or scored on points. But it's strictly an undercard bout, displaying enough heart and skill to keep the paying customers from getting too restless.