Southpaw is not a movie that needed to be made. There’s nothing to it that’s new or surprising or challenging to its audience or it genre. It is, without a doubt, a conglomerate Sports Movie, full of emotional underdogs, reluctant mentors, and inspiring training montages. But because this movie comes to us from director Antoine Fuqua of Training Day and Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (co-writing with The Mechanic’s Richard Wenk), what it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in intensity. These are guys who know how to take a violent genre, fill it with men suffocating in the cloud of their own machismo, and f*cking pummel you with their inner and outer turmoil. Southpaw may be more exhausting than it is truly affecting, but it is definitely engaging, and for all two hours, hard to look away from.
Southpaw gives us an underdog story, but starts with that dog at the very top. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (yup, Hope—gotta love that Kurt Sutter subtlety), in a performance so spectacular I can’t even talk about it yet. Give me a paragraph or two to cool down and we’ll get to him later, I promise. Hope is a boxer at the top of his game, an undefeated champion probably nearing the end of his career. As a kid, he came up through the Hell’s Kitchen child service’s program, but now, as an adult, he’s living a pretty impossibly sweet life. He’s married to the love of his life, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who was also a Hell’s Kitchen orphan, and they have an almost unrealistically awesome, brilliant young daughter. He lives in a gigantic mansion and with every win gives multi-multi-thousand dollar gifts to his childhood friends-turned-adult entourage. Now, obligatory spoiler warning: Stop reading here if you haven’t seen a trailer for this movie and aren’t familiar with the inevitable formula for this type of film in general. Right at the height of Hope’s success, an encounter with an up-and-coming fighter trying to badger Hope into taking him on turns into an all-out brawl, and then turns even worse. Maureen catches a stray bullet in the gut and dies on the spot, leaving Gyllenhaal to do something he’s never had to do since she’d been in his life: take care of himself. And even more than that, to take care of their daughter. But he most certainly cannot handle even the former, alternating between murderous revenge plots and hopeless (GET IT?) suicidal inclinations. Time is played pretty loose here, but in what seems like a matter of—I don’t know, minutes? weeks?—Hope loses everything: his trophies, his mansion, every single dollar he has, even his daughter, who is taken away to—yup, you guessed it— a child services group home, just like dad grew up in. Suddenly Rocky has turned to a Kramer vs. Kramer story of getting one’s life back on track.
The whole movie, from Hope’s fall from grace and learning humility to come back stronger, to his finding himself in order to become the man his daughter needs him to be—all of these are stories you know. They are not stories that are being reinvented or expanded upon. They are exactly what you expect them to be. Still, for all the overly familiar elements of Southpaw, there is one huge reason why this movie is more than worth your time, and that is Jake Gyllenhaal. Okay, actually, there are more. Rachel McAdams, as always, is phenomenal. Her role could easily have been a fridged supportive fixer of a wife, but was instead a complex woman and a fascinating half of an imperfectly perfect marriage. I’d seen the trailers, so I knew her fate in the film, but she swept me up and made me forget what I knew, so that I was genuinely devastated when her role was cut short. And yes, there’s more. Forest Whitaker is introduced late in the film, but fully takes charge once he’s there. And major awestruck praise has to be piled onto Oona Laurence, who plays Gyllenhaal and McAdams’ young daughter, a tightly contained, way too smart, fearsome child. Laurence, by the way, won a Tony before she was a preteen for originating the titular role of the new Broadway Matilda musical, and just signed on for three Pete’s Dragon movies over at Disney. In many ways, Southpaw was lucky to have her. She reached Gyllenhaal and McAdams’ level in every scene, if she didn’t surpass it.
But Gyllenhaal is the movie’s real shining light. A lot of fuss has bee made over his physical transformation, from scrawny Nightcrawler to, well… to this:
But he’s proving to be so much more than a weight-shifting Oscar-grabbing gimmick. Gyllenhaal doesn’t just transform for a role. He transforms in a role. I can’t think of another actor working today on this sort of blockbuster level who is as physically adept as he is, whose physical range is as wide as his emotive one. His Billy Hope is a wonder to watch. This is a man who grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen child services program (don’t get your hopes up—he doesn’t become Daredevil), and is still very much that hurting child. It shows in his fighting: he gets hit to get angry, meaning he spends much of his early fights waving his bloody face, manic and bug-eyed, in his opponent’s face before he gets pumped enough to knock them out. It’s a childish, rage-driven sort of fighting that Hope is very good at because it’s the only thing he knows. But outside the ring, Hope is a different sort of child. (Though of course, if you’ve ever met this sort of child, they are very often the same.) He is shy, self-conscious, embarrassed at his terrible spelling and lack of any ability to articulate his emotions. He can’t— and, thanks to his wife, has never had to—make a decision regarding his life, family, career, money, anything. This is a man at the top, who is an incredibly strong speciman physically and a hopeless mess emotionally. And Gyllenhaal, unlike many actors in the same sorts of roles, doesn’t just lay this persona on top of himself; he manages a physical transformation that will truly make you forget you’ve ever seen this actor before. Given the broad, sweeping character points he’s been given to work with, the way he fully inhabits and fully f*cking owns this character is nothing short of Oscar-worthy.
If you’re a fan of the violent sports film genre, this movie is going to be right up the middle of your chosen alley. There’s no doubt about that. But even if you’ve seen little more than a Rocky or two, and maybe a Wrestler, there is a place for this film. There is no nuance. Characters serve more as plot-pushers than anything else, and you may leave feeling there was a whole second movie left on the editing room floor in how clunky some of the more major developments play out. There is no question, Fuqua and Sutter want you to FEEL EVERYTHING above feeling something.. But, as manipulative and overt as their methods may be, they do actually succeed. No matter how hard these punches are telegraphed (APT OBVIOUS METAPHOR), they really do land, in no small part due to the wonder that is Jake Gyllenhaal’s impressive commitment to whatever he happens to be doing at any given moment.