Jake Gyllenhaal gives knockout performance in manipulative 'Southpaw'

Boxing melodrama stings like a bee, floats like a rock

Thursday July 23, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Jake Gyllenhaal's most recent movies throw a kind of one-two punch, knocking out any remaining notions that he's just a brooding, big-screen pretty boy. In last year's Nightcrawler, he dropped weight to play a skinny, eerily intense video journalist, speaking in a clipped delivery that conveyed the role's focused amorality.

For the new Southpaw, he's bulked up and sculpted like a superhero to play tormented boxer Billy "the Great" Hope, who occasionally punctuates his loose, mumbly delivery with roaring outbursts. Gyllenhaal's striking physical transformations would be just a stunt if he didn't pay such acute attention to his characters' needs and nuances.

Southpaw begins with Billy successfully defending his title as the "light heavyweight champion of the world," and "light heavyweight" could describe the film's tone. The script metes punishment out on Billy far more grueling than any he ever faced in the ring, and Training Day director Antoine Fuqua puts a gloss of seriousness over its drab color scheme. For all of Southpaw's self-importance, it's thematically wispy and brazenly manipulative, feeling like a featherweight match, despite its powerhouse performances.

Early in the film, someone describes Billy's approach to boxing as, "The more you get hit, the harder you fight." The film's opening match finds Gyllenhaal grinning while drooling blood, his face half-pulped, and he rushes for a knockout like a pouncing predator.

The match leaves him so damaged that his beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) — like Billy, a former Hell's Kitchen orphan — encourages him to step back from the sport and spend time with his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). One of Southpaw's greatest strengths is how it conveys the details of the pro-boxing lifestyle: the press of media; officials and hangers-on before and after big matches; the Hope family's luxurious home; and Billy's reckless generosity — he gives his entourage Cartier watches like party favors.

But Billy has to deal with an almost comically untrustworthy manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) and a taunting challenger (Miguel Gomez) seeking a title fight. At a fancy benefit, a brawl goes bad and in a shocking mishap, Maureen dies in Billy's arms. This sends him on a downward spiral that costs him his license, his money, and even his daughter, who gets taken from Billy's custody and consigned to a penitentiary-like state home. The script by "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter is full of scenes of teary Leila being separated from her dad, and other low blows.

To rebuild his life from the bottom up, Billy seeks a new mentor in Titus "Tick" Willis (Forest Whitaker, compelling in an underwritten role), a former boxing coach who teaches kids in a rundown gym. After extensive persuasion, Tick agrees to teach Billy a more defensive approach to boxing. Even viewers who don't know boxing will be intrigued by the training exercises that teach Billy new ways to stand and block punches. The metaphor's a little pat — Billy learns disciplines to protect himself inside the ring and out — but it holds up.

You briefly wonder if Billy could find peace and familial reconciliation without returning to the bloody sport — maybe professional boxing's the problem, not the solution. But Southpaw has no intention of tampering with the sports-movie formula, and is clearly building to the Big Match at the climax. Despite some close-up, high-impact fight scenes, the film embraces the same timeworn clichés of old-fashioned boxing melodrama you'd find in Rocky III or 1931's The Champ. Gyllenhaal, at least, remains a heavy-hitter. (2 out of 5 stars)

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