I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that a movie about a boxer’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption are handled in a heavy handed way. “Southpaw,” starring an almost impossibly pumped up Jake Gyllenhaal as a pugilist who goes from rags to riches to rages to… well, there will be no spoilers here, but in terms of the plot there are fewer surprises here than in a Mike Tyson first round knock out.
Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, a World Middleweight Boxing Champion with a 43 to 0 undefeated record. He’s wealthy, has a daughter (Oona Laurence) he dotes on and a loving wife (Rachel McAdams) who has been with him all the way, from the Hell’s Kitchen orphanage they grew up in to ringside at Madison Square Gardens on the night of his biggest success. As one ringside announcer says, “it’s only a few blocks, but it’s really a million miles.”
Billy is the prototypical inarticulate brute with a heart of gold, who falls apart when tragedy KO’s his life, personally and professionally. Newspapers call him The Great White Dope but with everything gone—his friends, trainer, money and even his daughter—he pulls himself together the only way he knows how—in the ring. At his side is Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), the Zen master owner of a run down gym, who teaches him boxing is not about fists, its about the mind.
“Southpaw” doesn’t have the epic feel of “Raging Bull.” Like the Martin Scorsese classic it has elements of human tragedy, but unlike Jake LaMotta’s story it is primarily interested in the more uplifting underdog and redemptive aspects of the story. The fall from grace is so extreme—one day he’s king of the world, the next he’s MC Hammer—that elements of melodrama are bound to sneak in, undermining what could have been a serious look at what happens when life throws a few below the belt punches your way.
Like it’s main character, the story is lightweight, but still packs a punch mainly thanks to Gyllenhaal’s gritty performance. Physically he’s a beast, jacked to an inch of his life, muscles bulging and veins popping. Mentally he’s volatile, a man who grew up fists first but who must learn to use his head and not just his body. Gyllenhaal does a great job of walking us through Billy’s rehabilitation, and while he’s still a bruiser at the end of the film, he’s an evolved one, much different than the person we met at the beginning of the film.
McAdams brings strength and warmth to the role of Billy’s soulmate Maureen. In the early part of the film she is Billy’s humanity, a living, breathing monument to all that is good in him and her. It’s a big weight to carry and McAdams nails it. Giving the film heart is Laurence. As the daughter who feels the severe repercussions of Billy’s ups and downs she is neither precious or just there to be the kid sidekick.
Whitaker, as the cosmic fight trainer, stretches credulity from scene to scene. He’s a fine actor but lines like, “You gotta let her go through her thing and not think your thing is her thing,” are a mouthful.
“Southpaw” is a solid sports redemption movie but lacks the punching power to be taken as seriously as “Raging Bull.”