Southpaw is emblematic of a frustrating trend in Hollywood: letting a great actor work their ass off in a film that completely fails to live up to that single performance.
Here, the actor in question is Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a boxer named Billy Hope (which, yikes, what a name) who appears to have it all. He has a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who’s able to calm him down, and a daughter (Oona Laurence) who adores him. He’s a successful champion boxer, with a mansion in the suburbs of New York to prove it. But a few nights after his latest win, Hope’s life is shattered when Maureen is accidentally killed in a brawl after an awards reception. In rapid succession, Hope becomes a raging alcoholic who burns through his fortune, losing his home and daughter in the process. And by rapid, we’re talking mere minutes on screen. Reaching rock bottom, he finds himself at the gym of Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a former pro-trainer, where he takes a job as a janitor.
And yes, you can easily guess where things go from there. The script is riddled with clichés; there’s a rough edge provided by Kurt Sutter’s script and Antoine Fuqua’s direction, but it’s not enough to distinguish it from pretty much any other comeback boxing story.
Fortunately, Gyllenhaal still digs into Hope like he’s part of a much better film. Part of it is physical; Gyllenhaal would have had to get into fighting shape for the film in any case, but Gyllenhaal took this on immediately after filming Nightcrawler, where he transformed himself into a scrawny creep. It’s a remarkable physical transformation, and it’s matched by the ferocity of Gyllenhaal’s performance. Whitaker is also a solid addition to the film. As he tends to do, he takes an underwritten role and adds an emotional undercurrent that’s strong enough to make it believable that Willis would risk his own reputation to help out Hope.
The rest of the cast is mixed. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s role as Hope’s business manager is so obvious in his shadiness, it’s mind-numbing. McAdams is actually rather great in her scenes with Gyllenhaal, which just makes the film grind to a halt when she’s dispatched early on. Laurence, for the most part, at least manages to avoid most of the pitfalls young actors tend to face.
Still, a mostly talented cast can only elevate a formulaic film so much. If the rest of the film were up to the standards set by Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and McAdams, Southpaw would be a far more worthwhile product.