Boxing champion Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is riding high until he is challenged by a trash-talking rival. Tragedy follows.
Rumour has it that Southpaw was originally intended as a vehicle for rap megastar Eminem, which would account for the film’s brawling, bruising hip-hop dynamic. But if it’s true, it also explains why this is not just a testosterone-soaked tale of triumph through violence. True, it doesn’t flinch from the effects of boxing both short-term and long-term, but Southpaw isn’t an epic Raging Bull-style rise-and-fall story with blood and guts. Instead, it’s an intimate study of a man whose demons threaten to take away the most precious thing in his life: his daughter.
Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Jake Gyllenhaal not only fleshing out the role of Billy Hope but lifting such seasoned material to another level. In fact, without Gyllenhaal, it’s hard to imagine Southpaw being made at all. If we ignore some of the more glaringly awkward plot points we’re left with a pretty standard sports story, in which a once-proud champion must return to his humble roots and start again.
Surprisingly, Gyllenhaal never really nails the gritty Hell’s Kitchen street-kid aspect, mostly because he seems too smart and urbane to make some of the dimmer choices Billy makes, but his physical work is amazing. The fights, though flashily edited from multiple angles, are not just convincing in themselves, they sell and advance the storyline. When Billy is confident, the moves are broad, swift and assured, when he’s mentally disintegrating he becomes feral, unpredictable, wild, and in the final stretch, when he’s desperately trying to make his way back to the top, that’s when things get really interesting.
Billy Hope is so overpowering that most of the supporting players struggle to register. Rachel McAdams gives his wife a flicker of depth, playing Maureen as a woman who, though concerned for his safety, perhaps enjoys Billy’s wealth that little bit too much. In the mentor role as world-weary trainer Titus ‘Tick’ Wills, Forest Whitaker wisely avoids cliché by turning things down a notch — a move also employed by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson as Billy’s unscrupulous manager, Jordan. After Gyllenhaal, Fiddy has the best character to work with: the slick éminence grise whose dedication to Billy doesn’t last long when the debt collectors call.
If Gyllenhaal hadn’t pulled it off, these flaws would seem much more heinous than they do. Instead, this stands as another terrific performance from an actor on a roll. Southpaw may not match up to the criminally underrated Nightcrawler, but what does? With its much more Academy-friendly themes of family and responsibility, this could finally be the film that bags him the Oscar.
Dont get too caught up in the all-too-familiar plot, just savour Jake Gyllenhaals powerhouse performance in a riches-to-rags-to-redemption sports movie that punches well above its weight.