Jake Gyllenhaal continues last years acting success with his dark and brooding Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler to give yet another great lead performance in Southpaw. Unfortunately, the imbalance of great performances from Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker can’t offset the unevenness and melodramatic overload this film attempts to attract and win over audiences.
Billy Hope has it all – the money, a beautiful wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). As a fighter his fighting style is abrasive and raw, his personality primal, angry and visceral. This should be the perfect combination for a champion boxer, and we first meet him in the ring, defending his title. He’s victorious, of course, but his victory is pyrrhic as he’s left punch-drunk with zero defense, his face battered and body weakened.
Maureen urges Billy to quit, but his manager (?) Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) has other plans for him – a contract, which means more money but also more fights. After a speech ceremony, Colombian fighter Miguel “Magic” Escobar confronts Billy, fraught with stereotypical machismo expected of Latino characters, and challenges him to a fight.
Maureen insists he ignore the expletives but Billy can’t contain himself, especially when Escobar makes comments about sleeping with Maureen. Consequently, a fight explodes between both crews in a fancy lobby, someone pulls a gun, and Maureen is caught in the line of fire, resulting in one of the longest, funniest film deaths I’ve ever seen which McAdams plays with a staggering amateurish phoniness that almost feels like parody. Really.
The overly dramatic narrative continues with a flurry of punches, none which Billy can hope to avoid. He loses everything: his contracts, license, money, home, even his annoying daughter. He’s now living in a derelict studio apartment in the bad end of town, having lost Leila after recklessly crashing his car into a tree at his mansion, while under the influence. He needs to prove to the courts that he’s both mentally and financially stable to get her back. There’s more melodrama here than a Spanish-language Novela (and that’s saying something).
This takes up almost half the film and it isn’t until Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) comes into the picture that the story gets any better; Whitaker brings a real rawness to his mumbled dialogue that works with Gyllenhaal’s visceral performance. Wills is the owner of a rundown gym and unofficially cares for troubled youths; he’s tough, has rules, discipline. In short, he’s the focus Billy needs to get back on track.
The rest s a redemption story, where Billy fights his way back to the top, changing his ways for his sake and his daughters, which plays on the emotions of an audience who like a self-served story will little depth. People who thought The Blind Side (2009) was a great film will probably like this, if only because it plays on the same manipulative heartstrings.
Southpaw is what you’d expect from director Antoine Fuqua; nothing terrible, but nothing great, either. I normally enjoy his films, and regardless of how superficial they seem they’re generally entertaining distractions. However, Southpaw feels like a miscalculated attempt at being a great film that resorts to using cheap emotional traps and, frankly, fails drastically.
Ultimately, the performances are the saving grace for Southpaw, the rest falling short thanks to its lopsided narrative. Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker are huge standouts and both deserving of some awards consideration, especially Whitaker, whom plays Wills with a subtle honesty that feels authentic. Nevertheless, this is early optimism, as their standout work here will likely get buried by other contenders come award season. I couldn’t fathom applauding with everyone at the end as I felt I’d gone a full twelve rounds, only to be disappointed by the decision.