If you’ve ever wondered what might have happened to Job if he had a strong left hook, “Southpaw” may be the film for you.
The rapid descent of light heavyweight champ Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama is of biblical proportions. Not weeks after Hope – rich, happy, successful – has defended his belt and unblemished record, a fatal altercation strips him of his family, his mansion and his career.
This being a boxing film, redemption is as much a certainty as a training montage. But Fuqua, an avid boxer himself, has pushed the pugilist parable even further. “Southpaw” is downright Old Testament.
As a tale of transformation, “Southpaw” functions two ways. There’s the story of Billy Hope striving to build his life back. And then there’s the tale of the actor who plays him. The latter packs the bigger punch.
Our first real view of Gyllenhaal is of him streaming toward the camera, emerging from a hazy blur a snarling, bloody spit of rage, rampaging across the ring.
The shot, in a way, is fitting. Gyllenhaal, as one of the most exciting leading men in Hollywood, is coming into focus, even as he’s eluding the frame. His maturation as an intense, all-in shape-shifter has become especially clear of late in films like “Nightcrawler” and “Prisoners.” “Southpaw” is him romping in his new weight class.
Much has already been made of Gyllenhaal’s bulking up for “Southpaw,” and it’s indeed impressive. But beyond the startling sight of the actor we once knew as Donnie Darko covered in muscles and tattoos, Gyllenhaal’s performance is most dynamic in his tender, mumbled moments with his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) or daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Outside of the ring, his Billy Hope sounds like a guy who’s been knocked around.
Fuqua plunges immediately into Hope’s title defense against a brash rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). The director (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) prefers a visceral directness (he has made a comeback movie about a boxer named Hope, after all) and he’s favored a far more straightforward, accurate view inside the ring than, say, the impressionistic poetry of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”
Instead, Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore have shot their fight scenes like broadcast television, copying its camera angles and piping in the commentary of announcers Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr. For better or worse, the fight scenes of “Southpaw” almost feel more like a pay-per-view stream than a movie.
Realism, though, is soon swapped for melodrama thicker than a heavy bag. As Hope and his wife exit a gala fundraiser, Escobar taunts him. Unable to resist, Hope reacts and a melee ensues that leaves Maureen dead from a stray bullet. It’s a wrenching, chaotic scene (McAdams is on a good, grittier run of late) that’s followed by more tragedy.
As Hope spirals, his daughter is taken away from him and the money suddenly dries up. His promoter-manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is little help as Hope wallows, adding the inevitable suffix of his second act: “less.”
Once rock bottom is sufficiently reached for maximum eventual payoff, Hope begins righting himself in that fountain of redemption: the rundown boxing gym. Who cannot be healed by its sweaty waters?
He turns to an unglamorous trainer named Tick Willis (the reliably excellent Forest Whitaker), who spouts all the wisdom of boxing and life that a corner man should. He teaches Billy precision and self-defense, turning him into a fighter in control of his emotions.
If the footwork of “Southpaw,” written by Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), is never light as a feather, its heart is seldom in doubt. The solid acting, led by Gyllenhaal and Whitaker, liven up the clichés, and Fuqua’s deep affection for the sport gives the movie a brisk, entertaining earnestness.
In bloody close-ups and bruising sounds, Fuqua captures the blinding brutality inside the ring. But his faith is never in question: This is a parable that believes strongest in boxing, itself.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Length: 119 minutes
Rating: R (language throughout and some violence)