Film Review: Southpaw

Jake Gyllenhaal’s intense lead performance elevates this boxing drama’s formulaic melodrama.
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A slab of granite tattooed muscle, Jake Gyllenhaal fights to reclaim what he’s lost in Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s unabashedly melodramatic boxing saga. With a body that doesn’t seem to boast an ounce of fat, and a face dominated by either sullen grimaces or maniacal smiles that preface imposing taunts, Gyllenhaal is a figure of aggro fearsomeness as Billy Hope, who at the outset of this familiar tale finds himself defending his light-heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden in front of adoring fans, his suave promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and his doting wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), whom he’s known since they were kids in the same foster home. Driven to victory by Maureen’s encouraging ringside admonishment “C’mon,” Billy retains his championship but takes a beating in the process–a fact that inspires worry in both Maureen and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), who greets her father later that night by counting the eight ugly wounds marring his face.

It’s not long before Maureen is cautioning Billy that continuing to fight–as Jordan desires, via a three-bout deal with HBO–will lead to punch-drunkenness and the loss of everything they’ve attained. It’s not ambition or greed that spells Billy’s doom in Southpaw, however, but animalistic male ego, as a subsequent post-gala spat with a trash-talking challenger (Miguel Gomez) leads to an ugly melee that ends in death. Without spoiling the specifics of that tragic twist, Billy is soon spiraling downward into vengeful fury and self-destructiveness, to the point that mere months after he was on top of the world, he’s lost his house, his career, his wealth and his daughter, with Leila being placed in foster care until Billy can prove to the courts that he can mend his shattered life.

Borrowing its basic template from Rocky III, and scripted by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, Southpaw strives for operatic fall-then-rise grandeur, reveling in the sight of rugged tough guys being brought low by their violent tendencies, and then seizing opportunities to achieve redemption through those same brutal impulses. Sutter’s writing isn’t after subtlety–his protagonist’s name is Hope!–so much as a sort of poetic working-class bluntness, and his macho prose finds a suitable vessel in Forest Whitaker. As Titus Wills, the New York boxing gym owner who eventually agrees to help Billy get back on his feet both in and out of the ring, Whitaker, whether silent or verbose, exudes the rough-hewn nobility of a wounded man trying to scrape by through adherence to his personal codes. He’s a soulful presence even amidst the surrounding clichés, and he’s responsible for perhaps the film’s most quietly affecting moment, when his Titus is offered a drink, reluctantly rejects it (for being too early in the evening), and then sheepishly thinks twice and takes a sip before pushing it away.

Southpaw, however, is primarily a showcase for Gyllenhaal. Like a coiled snake, Billy seems primed to strike out–at anything, or anyone–at any given moment, and his volatility is enhanced by the fact that he can barely string two sentences together without tripping over his own words. Ineloquent outside the squared circle, his Billy is only at home when his gloves are strapped on and an opponent awaits, and in the ring the actor’s fearsome eyes and lethal physicality convey a potent, electric sense of the character’s agonized rage and fear. That’s also often true of the film, which repeatedly stumbles into hackneyed territory but finds its footing during its inevitable final showdown, which Fuqua–always most comfortable shooting manly men affecting heroic change through glossily photographed violence–shoots with a flurry of intense POV shots, rousing slow-motion zooms and rapid-fire edits that do much to sell the material’s formulaic uplift.

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