Boxing is 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?
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.