The gritty trailers for this boxing drama were a pretty compelling selling point for me, promising ultra-kinetic fight scenes coupled with an appropriately brooding ambiance. What’s more, Jake Gyllenhaal is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, having displayed over time a commitment to method acting on par with Christian Bale (see, e.g., “The Machinist” —> “Batman Begins”). Gyllenhaal’s had a very strong run of films lately—“Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler” are particular standouts—and I was eager to see his transformation into a boxing star.
The plot of “Southpaw” is standard inspirational-drama fare. Boxing’s current light heavyweight champion, the unsubtly named Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), falls from glory after a tragic accident involving his wife (Rachel McAdams). A subsequent downward spiral results in his loss of custody of his daughter, catalyzing a personal transformation and Hope’s ultimate return to the ring. Et cetera, et cetera (“Southpaw” doesn’t break much new ground where plot depth is concerned).
I’m not always the biggest fan of sports films, but I certainly enjoyed “Southpaw.” Like many movies in the genre, it’s loaded with clichés—this is a fairly standard riches-rags-redemption narrative populated by stock characters—but it’s redeemed by Gyllenhaal’s all-in commitment to his role alongside a no-holds-barred approach to thematic content.
Just as in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal brings a white-knuckle energy to the screen: he’s as compelling as a hardscrabble-kid-turned-boxer as he was in portraying a glib-talking sociopath in last year’s thriller. The central role here demands a grueling physicality, and Gyllenhaal more than delivers, in a dramatic change from his usual gaunt sentinel-type roles. Further, the film’s R rating allows director Antoine Fuqua to pull no punches, in every sense of the term. These boxing matches are brutal, bloody confrontations shot with a breathless intensity. This ruthlessness actually works to the movie’s great advantage: despite the familiar plot beats, the film doesn’t feel focus-grouped to appeal to the largest possible demographic. (Additionally, there are new Eminem songs—one of which plays over a “Rocky”-style training montage—and they’re spectacular. I’m generally of the opinion that motivational Eminem songs improve any athletic drama).
It’s almost superfluous to say at this point, but there is nothing approaching subtlety or underlying commentary in “Southpaw” (although it’s potentially worth noting that the Child Protective Services bureaucracy comes off looking pretty awful). This movie works not on a cerebral level, but on a gut level: it’s the type of film that makes one want to go out and fight a bear single-handedly. I’m fully of the belief that in an era of CGI-drenched extravaganzas, that kind of raw human drama still has a place.
Is “Southpaw” destined to be iconic? Nope. But it’s decidedly more exciting than the Mayweather-Pacquiao brawl, and that has to count for something.
Formulaic? Sure—but also compelling on a primal, testosterone-soaked level.