Gyllenhaal Roars in 'Southpaw'

(USA, 123 min.)
Dir. Antoine Fuqua, Writ. Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and Rachel McAdams
Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw.
eOne Films.

The song says it all: Jake Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in Southpaw. The Nightcrawler star beefs up for this underdog tale as fallen boxing champ Billy Hope. As Billy trains and gets his groove back to the film’s anthemic theme song “Phenomenal” by Eminem, it’s amazing to see how far Gyllenhaal has come as an actor who transforms himself physically, emotionally, and mentally for each role he plays. His impressive performance alone is reason to see this latest drama from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer).

Gyllenhaal headlines the film, but like any good boxer, he has a worthy team of supporting players behind him. Canada’s Rachel McAdams gives Southpaw a quick jab to the heart in her brief but significant performance as Maureen, Billy’s wife and voice of reason who hates seeing her husband take beatings for a living. Southpaw opens strongly by presenting a power couple that comes from humble origins (both Billy and Rachel grew up in Hell’s Kitchen social housing) and sits at the top of the arena, winning fights in Madison Square Garden and giving back to the community. They’re underdogs who respect the fight that each one gave to get where they are in the present. The strong chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Adams offers a compelling family built on a mix of love, respect, and admiration.

Tragedy strikes quickly though and Southpaw ripples with a loss that puts Billy’s career in a quick nosedive. The film shows how families of victims of violence struggle in the aftermath of loss and grief, and the demise of Billy’s career and family hits hardest for his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), who becomes a ward of Child Services. Billy works to clean up the mess of his life and stage a comeback while checking in now and again with Leila’s caseworker (a likable Naomie Harris). It’s a story that audiences have seen before with mild variations in the stakes that fuel the final fight.

When Billy falls from being King of the Ring, so too does Southpaw. The script from Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) borrows from sports films and family dramas on both sides of the quality spectrum, and the film struggles to regain its pace and focus once McAdams exits the picture and Southpaw reverberates with a potent sense of loss. Southpaw frequently underscores the fact that Billy needs to take some punches before he gains the fuel and fury to overtake his opponent, but a meandering mid-section leaves this boxing pic winded.

The film also struggles with a few underdeveloped diversions including Billy’s relationship with Wills (Forest Whitaker), the owner of a boxing gym from his childhood days who becomes an ally when Billy’s entourage, which includes a goofy 50 Cent, abandons him when he bottoms out. Whitaker is excellent as he goes in Morgan Freeman/Million Dollar Baby mode as the broken-down coach teaches the former champ that boxing is all a state of mind, although this subplot is well-worn terrain. The scenes at the gym introduce elements of the hard life that Billy had in his adolescence, but they’re too undeveloped to leave an emotional impact even when violence hits the family at the gym as tragically as it did Billy’s own home. Similarly, the case of the shooting that leads Southpaw into its underdog tale never finds satisfying resolution even though the film culminates in the inevitable head-to-head showdown between Billy and the punch boxer who trashed-talks Maureen before the brawl that claims her.

Fuqua nevertheless probes the psyche of male aggression by giving Gyllenhaal a tag-team partner in the camera’s intimate, aggressive framing of his bulked-up physique. Quick cuts, pans, and intimidating close-ups ensure that Southpaw delivers some effective punches while a drum score from the late James Horner pumps up the crowd. The intensity of Gyllenhaal’s performance and the film’s ability to convey the physicality of the sport ensures that the viewer reels with each punch The actor scowls, growls, and roars in close-up, and Southpaw adeptly puts the audience into the mind of a born fighter and a man conditioned to thrive on adrenaline, rage, and ego. The physicality of Gyllenhaal’s performance offers an effective extension of his twitchy, bug-eyed insomniac in Nightcrawler, as he mumbles, dips, bounces, and swaggers with the natural moves of a man condition to take punches and give them back with equal measure. As Billy finds himself beat down by life, Gyllenhaal lets the character shoulder the weight of all the excess brawn that has lost the will to fight. When he regains his fire, the film comes to an electrifying, crowd-pleasing finish.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Southpaw opens in wide release on Friday, July 24 from eOne Films.