Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

11 December 2015

Two 2015 Movies about Punching People

More boxing movies? I am not sure, actually, why Hollywood keeps making boxing movies, or for that matter, why I keep going to them, but boxing is certainly that most cinematic of sports. The camera gets close up in the faces of the pugilists; we hear the thuds and thwacks and the clang of the bell; and it really does feel like we're there. I'd definitely rather watch a boxing movie than a basketball movie (there aren't many of those, come to think of it) or a movie about, say, the 400-meter relay.

The trouble is that there have been so many boxing movies and there are, consequently, so many established tropes and clichés. I remember being totally baffled when everyone went nuts over David O. Russell's The Fighter: isn't it just another typical boxing movie? But, then, I don't know if I can tell you why I liked Creed enormously and why I found Southpaw to be mostly boring and cliché-ridden. I am going to try anyway.
 * * *
Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw is a movie about a rage-filled champion whose wife is senselessly killed and who, following this event, completely loses his mind, does an enormous amount of dangerous activity, loses his house, and gets his kid put into protective custody because he is a total mess of a parent. He must (and this is a standard boxing-movie trope) get a new trainer, straighten up and fly right, and bounce back.

Jake Gyllenhaal is pretty awesome as the film's protagonist (he's sentimentally called Billy Hope), and the actor has really been on a roll, with excellent performances in Prisoners and Nightcrawler; sooner or later critics and the Academy will pay attention. In Southpaw he has transformed physically into a completely ripped and lean beast of a man-child, and his characterization is very interesting: he mumbles and stumbles his way through the film, solidly creating an unpredictable but rather lovable figure.

Still, I found it hard to root for this character, and maybe this is because the film as a whole is so dependent on feelings. Billy Hope is pure anger, lashing out at anyone and everyone, and then, when he needs to get his daughter back, he becomes pure sentiment, weeping his way through the film's third act. Southpaw sees this transition as totally natural, and perhaps it is, but I remain rather unconvinced by the idea. Does a man with enough of a problem with rage that he gets his kid taken away from him suddenly become father of the year after a couple of weeks working with Forest Whitaker? I am skeptical.

I think the kid thing bothered me, too. I need to become the light heavyweight champion of the world because my daughter needs lunch-money isn't, after all, that exciting of a reason for a film's final sequence. Once we got to act three I really kept hoping that Southpaw wouldn't end with a big boxing match but would avoid the trope and end with Billy Hope training kids and just worrying about making ends meets instead of worrying about getting a championship belt. If one's major concern is paying the rent and feeding the family, one doesn't actually need to make a $30 million deal with HBO. But, no, Southpaw ends the way you think it's going to end; no surprises here – just lots of feelings.
* * *
Creed has plenty of feelings, too, don't get me wrong. But I was into this movie from the very beginning. Ryan Coogler's film has its share of clichés, as well – difficult childhood, disapproving mom, complicated relationship with a trainer, and phrases like the real enemy in the ring with you is yourself.

But Creed just does all of this better. Michael B. Jordan is a young office worker named Donny Johnson who fights in Mexico on the weekends. He's the son of the boxer Apollo Creed from Rocky and Rocky II, III, and IV, and Creed both plays up this history and does something interesting with it. How does a person have a legend as a father and also try to make something of himself? What does the name mean? Does it hang over one like a curse? An impossible hurdle? Or can it be something that strengthens and emboldens one? This might seem like a less interesting reason to fight than, say, the love of one's small child, but I found this an infinitely more interesting character study.

Coogler's film also has Sylvester Stallone, the Oscar-nominated star of the Rocky films, and (obviously) a huge movie star in his own right. Stallone is wonderful in this, a retired boxer who wants nothing anymore to do with pugilism and isn't interested in training a young fighter. For Apollo Creed's son, however, Rocky Balboa sets aside his resistance and starts to work again.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Stallone is great, but Michael B. Jordan, the film's star and the star of Coogler's first film Fruitvale Station, makes this movie. Jordan is a fine actor, who keeps getting great roles and keeps turning in great performances. His work in Creed is sensitive and angry and frustrated and confused all at once. The part must've been written for him, and he is perfect for it, allowing us into the character's personal struggle even while the character puts up walls.

The conscious, knowing tribute (it never felt like a gimmick) to Avildsen's 1976 film works beautifully because it's understated and mediated in clever ways. Donny watches his dad and Rocky fight, for example, by pulling up YouTube videos of their matches. And the famous theme from Rocky creeps quietly but unmistakably into Ludwig Göransson's Creed score. Another reason this works is that the characters in Creed are actively trying to deal with the events of the Rocky movies, even to destroy them.

These are some reasons, I guess, but I don't think I can fully say why I found Creed's use of boxing-movie clichés to be interesting and Southpaw's boring. Maybe I just like narratives about men dealing with their fathers better than narratives about men dealing with their eight-year-olds. I think, though, that Creed just really is a better movie all around – better acting, better script, better editing, better photography. I loved it.