Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
After being denied a much deserved Oscar nomination for best actor last year for “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal is back to beat the hell out of anyone who thinks otherwise. While last year he was downright chilly as a cunning sociopath with an appetite for visual destruction, in “Southpaw” he’s a mumbling, short-tempered boxer by the name of Billy Hope. The gusto that Gyllenhaal has given in his performances over the past couple of years on display in “Southpaw,” but his acting prowess is too good for this script.
When we meet Billy, he’s being bandaged up for an upcoming boxing match. It’s one of the few instances in this movie we don’t see him beaten, bruised, or bleeding. Gyllenhaal sets the tone capturing the mannerisms of an all-star athlete psyching himself before a match, but once he speaks, he captures the literacy of Mike Tyson, and that’s not a bad thing when you’re portraying someone whose life is all about getting bashed in the head by fists.
His character is a bit like Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” because he has a gentle heart, but wields the strength to break some bones. Billy has a lovely wife, Maureen (McAdams) and a 10-year-old daughter whom he absolutely adores, Lelia (Oona Laurence). He turns into a pile of mush talking to them and fawns over them constantly, but once he steps into the ring, he turns into an absolute monster. This big swing in delivery and emotions is what makes Gyllenhaal’s performance one of the best this summer.
The story that Gyllenhaal gets to act in is not as stellar. The high-life ends when a freak accident, which I’m still not sure what happened in it, kills Maureen, and leaves Billy and Lelia alone. The story logistics, or domino effect of bad events after Maureen’s death, are hasty and illogical. Focusing on them could easily cloud one’s judgement and prevent one from enjoying the cheap entertainment that “Southpaw” is. Billy loses custody of his daughter, he loses his home and his livelihood, and he’s left penniless in the streets, all within a matter of days. You think the undefeated lightweight champion of the world could afford a better trial lawyer and would have at least a couple of million for the rainiest of days.
Instead of solving problems in a clear, concise manner, the movie relies on aged sports movie clichés to get from one scene to the next. One instance for example is when Forest Whitaker shows up as the Apollo of the movie, Titus. Titus has some strict morals about training a professional boxer that he ends up forsaking so it won’t inconvenience the plot. While all of this certainly puts a damper on everything, if you treat it like most summer blockbusters, you shouldn’t have too hard a time enjoying what transpires.
“Southpaw” is an enjoyable break from the explosions and CGI of the summer, as long as you’re not putting it in the ring against “Rocky” or “Raging Bull”. “Southpaw” gives us one of the more loveable brutes of the summer, while providing cheap popcorn entertainment. For all its faults, it can be enjoyed as long as you turn your brain off. And if I can be forgiven for just one more heap of praise for Gyllenhaal, seeing his shapeshifting transformation from role to role since “End of Watch” is reason enough to purchase a ticket for “Southpaw”.