WASHINGTON — Two very different movies enter the box-office arena this weekend.
In one corner, Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself into a punch-drunk boxer in “Southpaw.”
In the other corner, “Punk Drunk Love” star Adam Sandler faces arcade aliens in “Pixels.”
That’s right, it’s on like Donkey Kong, and in this box-office battle, there is no split decision.
We don’t need to go to the score cards.
This one is a straight-up knockout.
Boxing champ Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is undefeated in the ring and living the high life with his wife (Rachel McAdams), daughter (Oona Laurence) and manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson). But when a series of setbacks plunge him toward personal and professional ruin, he must rebuild his career under a new trainer (Forest Whitaker) to face his fiercest in-ring rival yet (Miguel Gomez).
The film does a lot of things well, but let’s start by addressing the elephant in the boxing trunks. The title, “Southpaw,” is slang for a left-handed fighter, while Gyllenhaal fights right-handed. It would be like making “The Blind Side” about blocking the quarterback’s front. Perhaps this is because the right-handed Gyllenhaal patterned his stance after real-life righty Miguel Cotto, or perhaps it’s because the film was originally envisioned as a vehicle for rapper Eminem (aka Marshall Mathers).
“I love that the title refers to Marshall being a lefty, which is to boxing what a white rapper is to hip hop; dangerous, unwanted and completely unorthodox,” screenwriter Kurt Sutter recently told Deadline Hollywood. “It’s a much harder road for a southpaw than a right-handed boxer.”
The idea of Eminem in a boxing film would have been intriguing to see, especially after impressively “losing himself” in the freestyle rap drama “8 Mile” (2002). Instead, the role went to Gyllenhaal, leaving Eminem to provide the soundtrack with its climax song “Phenomenal.” The song may as well describe Gyllenhaal’s performance, as the actor commits to the role — mentally and physically.
If anyone still doubts Gyllenhaal’s talents, it’s time to lean your back against the turnbuckle and take some smelling salts to the face. Wake up! Over a span of 14 years, the guy has demonstrated serious range: hallucinating criminals (“Donnie Darko”), testosterone troops (“Jarhead”), closeted cowboys (“Brokeback Mountain”), time travelers (“Source Code”), obsessive journalists (“Zodiac”), pharmaceutical salesmen (“Love & Other Drugs”), gritty cops (“End of Watch”), twitchy detectives (“Prisoners”), creepy paparazzi (“Nightcrawler”) and now punch-drunk boxers (“Southpaw”).
We may have lost Heath Ledger, but we’re lucky to still have Gyllenhaal out there doing his thing. He famously said, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” but we urge him to keep going, keep experimenting, keep perfecting his craft. When it comes to “Southpaw,” the more apt career quote comes from “Nightcrawler” — “If it bleeds, it leads” — as blood drips from his mouth amid so many slurred words.
It’s Jake’s own belief in the role that makes us believe in the “Southpaw” story, despite its cliché trappings. There are several moments that ring familiar (i.e. Miguel Gomez shouting at the champ’s press conference like Mr. T in “Rocky III”), while other moments dangerously push the bounds of melodrama (i.e. the daughter’s exposition watching the final fight from a backstage TV).
Sutter is certainly a talented writer, having penned episodes for “The Shield” before creating FX’s wildly popular series “Sons of Anarchy,” so let’s chalk it up to debut screenplay jitters. Despite the occasional overreach of wildly swinging plot punches, there are enough grounded jabs to make the whole thing work. One critic was spot-on in comparing it to the Biblical “Book of Job” in the Old Testament, as one-by-one, Gyllenhaal loses everything dear to him: his marriage, his daughter, his house, his job, his soul. In this way, “Southpaw” works as a sort of parable of rock-bottom redemption.
Keeping it all on the rails is director Antoine Fuqua, who gives his best effort since “Training Day” (2001), when he directed Denzel Washington to a Best Actor Oscar, set up Ethan Hawke to embark on 12 years of “Boyhood,” discovered Eva Mendes and infused a string of rappers in supporting roles.
“Olympus” may have fallen, but Fuqua has picked himself back up off the mat. He is one of those underdog directors you root for, after rising the ranks from “Gangsta’s Paradise” music videos to “Dangerous Minds” trailers. In “Southpaw,” he uses a bedroom mirror to symbolize the emotional separation of Gyllenhaal and McAdams. He uses a low-angle camera to round the corner of a locker-room shower to become a voyeur in a private moment. He uses a low-angle push-in on Jake at his corner stool. And during the climax, he showcases an uppercut in slow-motion for maximum effect.
Perhaps best of all, he pulls authentic performances from his cast, from the one-eyed wisdom of Whitaker, to the punch-drunk love of McAdams, to the raw intensity of Gyllenhaal, who must learn to see how his own internal aggression contributes to the larger twists of fate from the heavens.
In the end, there are two ways to make a boxing masterpiece — the sentimental structure of “Rocky” (1976) or the tragic poetry of “Raging Bull” (1980). “Southpaw” never quite lives up to those gems, but it’s a solid addition to the genre — dedicated to the late James Horner’s posthumous score.
If only the title — and the script — were less orthodox.
★ ★ ★
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to somehow make it through this next plot summary without rolling your eyes. You ready? You sure? You really sure? OK, you were warned.
In 1982, classic arcade games are sent into space as part of a NASA time capsule. But the plan backfires, as extra terrestrials interpret the gesture as a declaration of war.
These aliens respond by invading Earth using those very video game characters against us. Why use superior extraterrestrial weapons when you have 8-bit technology like Pacman? And why unleash it right away? It’s better to wait decades to attack a new generation who barely remembers Galaga.
The only hope for mankind is a group of former child gaming prodigies who have grown up to varying degrees of success. There’s Brenner (Adam Sandler), who fixes living-room flatscreens; Eddie (Peter Dinklage), a prison inmate who holds the Donkey Kong record; Ludlow (Josh Gad), a savant with a fetish for digital women; and Cooper (Kevin James), who is the President of the United States.
Vote Paul Blart 2016.
OK, enough with the sarcasm. Maybe we’re overthinking this. After all, the cosmic Keymaster plot of “Ghostbusters” was just as ridiculous, yet that film became a hilarious comedy classic. Despite an early cameo by Dan Aykroyd, there’s a key difference between Mr. Stay Puft and Mr. Pacman.
“Pixels” just isn’t as good at pulling it off.
Fantasy-comedies can be as zany as they want in the setup, as long as there’s some plausibility going forward within the film’s internal logic. In “Pixels,” the premise is so preposterous that you’ll wonder whether its creators were on acid, just as you wonder how the project ever got greenlit.
Director Chris Columbus once dominated children’s cinema with timeless family flicks, from “Home Alone” (1990) to “Harry Potter” (2001), adding enough heart to capture parents’ imaginations. “Pixels” appears lost in its demographics, appealing to the 30+ crowd with its Centipede and Space Invaders references, yet presenting a silly product that is only appealing to the 20 and under crowd.
At the very least, the supporting cast is redeeming. As the voice of Olaf in “Frozen” and the original Elder Cunningham in “The Book of Mormon,” Gad is quite funny delivering an R. Lee Ermey style speech to the troops. “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage once again proves his silver screen chops after last summer’s standout blockbuster “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” And Michelle Monaghan shows her comedic side after stellar serious roles in “Fort Bliss” and “True Detective.”
But as good as the supporting cast is, it’s hard to escape the stale brands of the two leads, Sandler and James, who were pronounced “Chuck & Larry” eight years ago. Both are comedic talents — from “Happy Gilmore” (1996) to “Hitch” (2005) — but the “Pixels” script doesn’t do either any favors. We never once believe that James is president, just as we never buy Sandler’s courtship of Monaghan.
You’ve heard of “E.T. phone home?” This is E.T. “phone it in,” which is exactly what the filmmakers appear to do. It’s a lazy affair, wasting a whopping $110 million budget that could have funded so many better movies. The extraterrestrial baddies take way too long to show up, the dialogue is filled with exposition (“Wait, Pacman is a bad guy?”) and the movie ruins its best joke in the trailer.
As real-life Pacman creator Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama) confronts his munching baby boy, his hand is promptly bitten off. He runs away, screaming, “Somebody annihilate this stupid thing!”
Someone should have said that in the pitch room.