languishing, yet the boxing movie remains a Hollywood staple. Perhaps this is not surprising: who would want to abandon such a reliable setting for muscular melodrama, for male weepies of bodily display, damage and, most of the time, “redemption”? Occasionally filmmakers tinker a bit with the genre’s well-worn conventions but most are happy to stick to a reliable formula.
The latest in line is
Southpaw. Its pleasures certainly look to be familiar: as one reviewer put it: “Remove the swearing, the blood, the Eminem songs and the people of color … and you basically have the most popular boxing movie of 1935.” So what did the film’s director Antoine Fuqua and its star Jake Gyllenhaal learn from their many predecessors?
How to be an actor
Boxing films offer actors a chance to show off – not only their muscles but also what the studios call their “courage” and “dedication”. To prepare for the role of Southpaw’s Billy Hope, Gyllenhaal trained for six hours a day for six months; including a daily 2,000 sit-ups. He also regained the 30 pounds he’d lost for Nightcrawler (2014), and added another 15 of “new muscle” – not, one assumes, the same five pounds he’d boasted of gaining for Jarhead (2004). All for 123 minutes of screen time.
Gyllenhaal’s (repeated) bodily makeover can be read as a kind of emulation of that undertaken by Robert De Niro. In what was then the apotheosis of method acting, De Niro gained 60 pounds to play Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980), a film so stylised and operatic that its director Martin Scorsese said it would be “ridiculous” to call it a “boxing picture”. Scorsese ended the film with a biblical quotation: “All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see” – suggesting La Motta had achieved some kind of transcendence of his “animal” nature. But the film’s screenwriter Paul Schrader complained that Scorsese was “imposing salvation on his subject by fiat”. Ultimately, Raging Bull has less to say about the soul than the body, the raw material that every boxer and actor works with.
How to find redemption
The more straightforward narrative arc of Southpaw, and its unambiguously named hero Billy Hope, owes most, however, to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976).
Filmed in blockbuster “bright colours, strong reds and blues” (or so Scorsese complained), Rocky is a nostalgic rendering of white working-class neighbourhood values, a fairy tale of the second chances made possible by hard graft, and by the love of a good woman called (who could forget) Adrian.
Always listen to your wife
Men may (usually) do the fighting, but boxing stories often suggest that without a guiding feminine influence, they have no idea what’s worth fighting for. We know that Billy (Gyllenhaal) is in trouble as soon as he refuses to listen to his wife (Rachel McAdams).
Again there are precedents. When, in The Set-Up (1949), Stoker Thomson (Robert Ryan) tells his wife that he’s just one punch away from success, Julie (Audrey Totter) counters mercilessly: “Don’t you see … you’ll always be just one punch away.”
Refusing to watch him fight, Julie stays in the Hotel Cozy, warming soup. Only after some gangsters break his hand does she emerge. Stoker gasps proudly that he had won that night, while Julie, inspecting his career-ending injury, smiles beatifically. “We’ve both won,” she says.
… Or your coach
If the big fight represents the climax of most boxing films, the gym is where their heart lies. The gym is a “second home”, a place where, as the novelist and boxing commentator Katherine Dunn put it, “men are allowed to be kind to one another” without a “question of motive”.
One of the most poignant moments in Rocky V (1990) is when, in a flashback, we see his trainer Mickey give the Rock “the favourite thing that I have on this earth”, a golden glove necklace, once Marciano’s cufflink. “I’m givin’ it to you and it, it’s gotta be like a, like an angel on your shoulder see?”
But men like Mickey are less angels than what the French sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls “virile mothers”. Maggie (Hilary Swank) in Million Dollar Baby (2004) has a “dead daddy” and her “momma weighs 312lbs”, but then in steps Frankie (Clint Eastwood), a trainer who needs a second chance at parenting. In Southpaw, Billy lucks out when he meets Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker). Only after being freshly re-parented (as well as coached) by Tick can Billy become a proper father to his daughter Leila.
… Or your dog
But not every wannabe boxer wants to work so hard. The Champion (1915) begins with Charlie Chaplin (as the tramp) sharing a meagre hot dog with his “persnickety pooch”, but his luck soon changes when he finds a horseshoe in front of training camp that’s looking for men “who can take a beating”. After watching several fighters being carried out on stretchers, the tramp puts the horseshoe into his glove. He wins.
Suddenly favourite for the championship, Charlie, going by the sobriquet “the Jersey Mosquito”, is forced to fight without his horseshoe. His dog watches attentively; smiling when Charlie lands a punch, fierce and then gloomy when he is knocked down. Finally the mutt has had enough. He enters the ring and sinks his teeth into the opponent’s backside, distracting him sufficiently for Charlie to land his knockout punch. Another triumph for teamwork.