Jake Gyllenhaal is always an interesting actor and, in Southpaw, he’s pulled off yet another transformation, piling on the muscle and jettisoning his good looks to play light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope; indeed, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who gave us the creepy, emaciated ambulance-chaser he portrayed so brilliantly in Nightcrawler. We first meet Billy as he grimly holds on to his title belt in a bruising, bloody confrontation with a much younger fighter. The boxing sequences don’t really compare with the mesmerising, almost dreamlike sequences in Scorcese’s Raging Bull, but they’re nonetheless realistic enough to make the more sensitive viewers wince. But fate is waiting in the wings for Billy. When his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is accidentally shot dead in a fracas at a charity event, Billy finds himself on a slippery slope downhill as, in quick succession, he loses his licence to fight, his home is repossessed and his daughter, Leila (a winning performance from Oona Lawrence) is taken by child protective services. This is all harrowing stuff and director Antoine Fuqua mines it expertly for maximum distress; at several points I find myself tearing up. Can Billy ever find redemption and rebuild his career? Hey, is the Pope a Catholic?
It has to be said that from this bleak first third, the film enters a very familiar trajectory as Billy teams up with washed-up-boxer- turned-trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who quietly guides his protégée back to the top of his game. (Anyone who’s seen Rocky, will know the form. In that film, Burgess Meredith did pretty much the same with Rocky Balboa.) Whitaker manages the role with his customary skill and there’s a surprisingly decent turn from 50 Cents as a mercenary boxing promoter (who ironically declared his own ‘strategic’ bankruptcy recently – is this where he got the idea?).
Maybe Billy’s fall from grace is a little over the top – could anybody as successful as Hope fall quite so fast and quite so hard? And maybe his path back to championship fitness in just six weeks is a little too easy, encapsulated as it is in a perfunctory training montage. But nevertheless, the final confrontation is compelling enough to keep you on the edge of your seat till the final count.
All in all, this is decent entertainment with a distinctly gloomy edge.