Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, 50 Cent, Miguel Gomez, Oona Laurence
Once again, Jake Gyllenhaal transforms both physically and mentally – this time as a championship boxer. Director Antione Fuqua (Training Day) finds many fascinating shots both in and out of the ring. Yet, Southpaw doesn’t really bring any new moves to the canvas. Remove the swear words and rap music, and this film could’ve been shot in 1945, 1965 – any time really.
We tend to like stories with traditional arcs; it’s especially comforting to know the outcome when the blood is flying and people are taking a constant pounding. Yet, there are definitely some new punches Southpaw could’ve thrown into the mix.
Gyllenhaal is an orphan who has fought his whole life; he’s parlayed that determination and rage into a successful boxing career. McAdams has accompanied him through the orphanage and out into the world; they fell in love some time ago and became an unstoppable team. Their pride and joy is their daughter Laurence.
Yet, McAdams knows Gyllenhaal takes punches instead of protecting himself. He lets his fury fuel his fighting. She begs for him to be more strategic, more judicious in picking his battles.
Before he can act on this advice, tragedy strikes. Gyllenhaal’s life and career are thrown into ruin. He ends up destitute, begging to work with old warhorse trainer Whitaker to recapture his glory days.
It’s impressive to see how Gyllenhaal has bulked up and carved a character out of mumbles and ducking. Though it’s not quite as dramatic as last year’s gaunt, disturbing Nightcrawler, this performance again shows why he’s one of our great actors.
Fuqua has never lived up to the beauty and grit of his early film Training Day. Yet, he still finds the interesting shot, slowing down action, using high-definition digital to catch the blood and sweat streaming off the fighters.
The problem is that there’s nothing surprising, and there could’ve been. It’s as if Southpaw doesn’t use the opportunities given to it.
Anger management is a fascinating angle, because boxing may appear to some to be about rage, furiously pummeling your enemy to submission. Whitaker’s training suggested a more Zen approach. Yet, writers Richard Wenk (Expendables 2) and Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) don’t bring this concept to fruition. No vital arc is given to Gyllenhaal’s temper, so we can see the change in him. He has reason to be angry, and reason to get past it – that journey is never hashed out.
Another interesting theme: fight promoter 50 Cent represents both Gyllenhaal and his biggest competitor (Gomez). No one talks about how the promoters will get rich no matter who wins or loses.
Perhaps a few people will still enjoy Southpaw for Gyllenhaal’s performance and for its comfortable, predictable plot. It’s the opposite reason they would watch a real fight: the thrill of witnessing the brilliant use of tactic, and the not knowing how it all ends.