Southpaw

 

Controlling rage can be a challenge for anyone. For a boxer, uncontrolled rage can be devastating, professionally and personally. In Southpaw, a classic redemption movie, it is self-control that saves the day (along with boxing skill).

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated light heavyweight champ who wins with sheer physicality fueled by anger. Because his style is more about strength than grace, he leaves himself open to opponent punches. Following a big win, wife Maureen (Rachel MacAdams) urges him to take a break. She fears he’ll become punch drunk.

Later, as Hope exits a charity event, he is taunted by up-and-coming boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Maureen urges her man to keep moving but his rage takes over and the two boxers get into a scuffle. As the tussle escalates, someone pulls out a gun. A shot is fired, killing Maureen.

Things go downhill quickly. An angry Hope drives a car into a tree. In his return to the ring, he punches out a referee, leading to his suspension. The big money offers from promoters and HBO disappear. He loses his mansion, his cars and, most sadly, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Uncontrolled rage is the culprit again at the court hearing to decide whether his daughter becomes a ward of the state. He loses her.

Hope moves into an apartment in a seedy part of town and takes a job as a janitor at a small boxing gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). As Hope begins to mentor the kids who frequent the gym, Wills develops a fondness for Hope. Following an unsanctioned exhibition, Hope gets a shot at a match versus Miguel Escobar.

With training and support from Wills, Hope steps into the ring with a different attitude. Hope plays defense as well as offense. If you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you can guess the outcome.

Gyllenhaal, who has been brilliant in recent films Nightcrawler and Prisoners, should be a strong contender for year-end awards for his work in Southpaw. This is a gritty performance filled with realistic fight sequences and injuries that look painful.

Southpaw is beautifully directed by Anthony Fuqua. A favorite shot is a POV shot snakes around a corner to show a physically and emotionally spent Hope sitting naked on a shower floor.

The movie is good. Gyllenhaal’s performance is the reason to see it.

Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.