Boxing Drama "Southpaw" Ends Up A Split Decision

Jake Gyllenhaal boxing drama “Southpaw” is a reliable old hound of a movie, tired and droopy but endearing all the same. Although it sometimes plays like a catwalk for sports movie clichés – one after the other after the other – the film knows exactly what it is. And it’s hard to deny the comforts of Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker having a Rocky-vs-Mickey-like spat in the corner of a dive bar.

The pic’s screenplay – the first from “Sons Of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter – is unflinchingly earnest, which at first glance might not seem a good match for director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua has been riding the coattails of his first big hit, “Training Day,” for nearly 15 years now, slip-siding down a slope of humorless, brain-dead action fare (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Equalizer”).

But like it’s ripped leading man, “Southpaw” has heft, affording Fuqua his most affecting, substantive material in years. There’s nothing here as electric as Denzel Washington’s fireball of a performance in “Training Day,” but the script is adequate and the cast elevates it at every turn.

Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a boxer with a 43-0 record and the world wrapped around his finger. He lives in a mansion with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). His agent (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is on the cusp of inking one of the biggest fight contracts in the history of the sport. His world seems bulletproof.

But with a single gunshot that world collapses in on itself.

The redemption-through-boxing arc that follows isn’t the most graceful ever put to screen – in fact, it never makes much sense – but the arrival of Forest Whitaker as Tick Wills, gruff inner city boxing trainer, makes the medicine go down.

As wooden as 50 Cent is in his role (he’s terrible), both Whitaker and Naomie Harris (as a social worker) are the opposite, their presence often making the movie fly. Each is given a stock role that they whip into shape in no time at all, turning some otherwise stale story beats into something alive, if not revolutionary.

Above all, there might not be a more interesting actor working today than Jake Gyllenhaal. His once timid screen presence has evolved into something ferocious while remaining delicately layered. In “Southpaw” he inhabits Billy Hope so completely – physically and emotionally – that there’s never a moment when Gyllenhaal the actor is on screen. Billy Hope might be his most vibrant work to date, even if the movie doesn’t match up. It’s as thrilling as ever to watch him work.

“Southpaw” might as well be called “Boxing Movie,” with its plain, predictable story frequently undermining its award season aspirations. But it’s far from worthless and it just might be essential for both boxing enthusiasts and Gyllenhaal fans. If nothing else, it pretty easily usurps Mayweather vs. Pacquiao as the boxing event of 2015.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 24, 2015
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)