Most boxing movies must inevitably be compared not to Rocky, but to Raging Bull. If you’re not telling an underdog story of determination, you’re telling one of a man who takes punishment in the ring just so he can feel anything at all. Southpaw veers closer to a more accessible, more modern, studio-friendly Raging Bull. Director Antoine Fuqua borrows some of Eminem and 50 Cent’s cred and transforms Jake Gyllenhaal into a hulking embodiment of Marshawn Lynch in Beast Mode. The film is absolutely amped full of adrenaline and raw, punishing emotion to the point that the drearier, figurative gut punches don’t detract from the more gratifying literal ones.
Gyllenhaal plays undefeated title holder Billy Hope, a vicious brawler who takes a beating so he can work himself up to dole out more abuse. Fuqua captures Hope simply roaring into the camera, so angry and intense you’d think he was auditioning for Mad Max: Fury Road. But out of the ring, Hope is a gentle soul nursed by his adoring wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and his 10-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence). Maureen worries for Hope’s health and pleads for him to change his style, despite the fact that it’s won them a life of luxury.
At a charity benefit, Hope gets into a brawl after a rival fighter taunts him. A member of his entourage pulls a gun, and Maureen is accidentally shot and killed. It’s Southpaw’s first truly devastating moment, and Hope quickly falls to pieces in the aftermath. He drinks heavily, takes a beating in a match, and ends up with a suspension, finally losing his house, money, and daughter to a foster care center. The remainder of Southpaw finds Hope rehabbing and training with Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) in an effort to get back on top and regain custody of his daughter.
Melodrama is not Fuqua’s strong suit. Southpaw knows little subtlety, staging glamorous money shots in the ring and rage-filled montages of Hope’s training and descent into madness. It’s as though the whole movie were screaming Eminem’s anthem for the film, “I AM PHENOMENAL.” As a result, the film’s middle portion is bleak and heavy-handed, with one blow coming right after the other. Fuqua juggles themes of being unable to control your own fate, of rebuilding yourself, and of the pain we put ourselves through, but much of Southpaw is so one-note that none of the themes are entirely pronounced.
Whitaker is strong as an unflinching trainer with tight control over his students and a no-BS wit. But Gyllenhaal continues to be the standout, pulling a complete 180 from his skinny shell of a person in Nightcrawler. The initial hype for Southpaw was that Gyllenhaal simply looked jacked, and the thrill of seeing him that way never lessens. But he does manage subtlety the rest of the movie doesn’t have. When he speaks, he fumbles for words and sheepishly bobs and weaves, showing how dependent he is on others. Hope is full of anger and rage, but Gyllenhaal never chews the scenery. Even if it’s not for Southpaw, someone should give this guy an Oscar. It’ll go great with his championship belt.