2 1/2 Stars
Jake Gyllenhaal’s continued emergence as one of today’s finest actors is the main reason to see Southpaw. Great pugilists are often refered to as having all the tangible qualities,the same could be said of this project. On paper Southpaw possesses fantastic Oscar potential. In actuality, the writing is on the level of a second-tier TV movie and the pacing is slack and rushed in alternating rhythms. Yet, the lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and fine turns in supporting roles from Rachel McAdams, Forrest Whittaker, and Oona Laurence are marvels that nearly elevate the mediocre flick to contender level.
Brutal knock-out machine Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated light-heavyweight champion. Hope sports a 43-0 record and delights in absorbing as much punishment as he dishes out. As the film opens, we witness a particularly damaging fight that Billy wins by a come from behind KO late in the bout. Sitting rings-side is Maureen Hope (McAdams), who acts as manager and lover to her husband. She is concerned for Billy’s mental well-being after he displays a few troubling signs of early on-set dementia. Maureen urges him to quit the sport while they are financially sound and he’s able to carry a conversation with their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Billy agrees with his wife’s request and plans on retiring, even shunning a lucrative multi-fight contract on PPV. Then Hope’s world is thrown into turmoil. His wife is killed in a bizarre incident involving a fellow boxer, Miguel Torres and his posse. This loss is harder to cope with than any defeat in the ring. Billy’s unstable behavior and mental weariness force the courts to appoint his daughter to foster care. Broke, grieving, and estranged from his daughter, Hope’s only hope to survive is by re-learning his approach to life and fighting.
Of course, this being a boxing movie everything culminates in a big fight to settle all wrongs. Inexplicably, Hope and Torres are matched up, presumably to add closure on Billy’s raw nerve. However, the killer is never brought to justice and a secondary character is so sketchily written he’s basically used as a plot device and not a human.
Southpaw gets so much right about fighter’s mentalities and the sport in general that it’s tempting to recommend the film. However, the sub par writing steals from so many other genre pictures that this story never feels fresh or independent of those that have come before. A four-star performance from Gyllenhaal is trapped in a two-star movie.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams