What’s it about great actors that they all fall for the boxing movie? The lure of that coveted Oscar? From Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro to Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Christian Bale…some of Hollywood’s most solid talents have undergone startling transformations to play pumped-up pugilists on screen. Jake Gyllenhaal joins the ranks with Southpaw, but the film’s script feels like a compendium of every boxing-movie cliché you can possibly think of.
To be fair, Gyllenhaal is as intense as you might expect in the role of Billy Hope, a left-handed champ with a big house, a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), and a loving daughter (Oona Laurence). Too good to last, eh? A scuffle with a rival leads to tragic consequences and sends Billy into a spiral of drugs and alcohol. Before he knows it, he’s lost his home, all his money, and custody of his daughter. No prizes for guessing what happens next. Yup, it’s a long trek down Redemption Road.
In the hands of a lesser actor this would be the stuff of cringe-inducing soap opera, but Gyllenhaal hurls himself into the part with great intensity and commitment. He brings a hulking physicality to the boxing scenes, and conveys Billy’s internalized struggle to reform with unmistakable sincerity. Another winning performance comes from Forest Whitaker, playing a hard-nosed boxing coach who “rescues” Billy when he’s at his most vulnerable.
Director Antoine Fuqua shoots the boxing scenes in long takes and gives us full body shots that look painfully real. What a shame that it’s all in service of a plot that’s utterly predictable from start to finish. Melodramatic and manipulative, this is no Raging Bull.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.