Anyone who has ever seen a glimpse of a sports movie can suss out where the boxing drama Southpaw is headed well before the final bell.
Boy grabs brass ring, boy loses brass ring, boy tears soul and sinew trying to get it back.
But that doesn’t matter. In the latest deep dive into the testosterone-drenched world of director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day) and writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield), it’s not as much about the what but the how. Southpaw doesn’t try to reinvent the boxing-movie game — in fact, it pretty much indulges every cliche — but it’s the intense central performance from a beefed up, ripped-to-the-core Jake Gyllenhaal that gives it distinction and heart.
Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, a strutting rooster in the ring who may not have a lot of style and grace, but that doesn’t matter when he pile drives his fist into your jaw. The orphan kid who once had nothing now has it all: enough money to make Midas say “whoa”; a house as big as a shopping mall; a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a cute daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence) who adores him; and, of course, a championship. Does life get any better?
But feisty up-and-comer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) haunts Billy like a phantom, showing up at press conferences to taunt him, asking why Billy won’t fight him.
Billy’s manager, Jordan (50 Cent), doesn’t want his client to take the bait. But when Miguel and his crew start puffing their chests around Billy and his boys during a dressy gala, someone pulls a weapon and, in an instant, Maureen is killed and Billy’s world crashes to the ground like a house of glass.
He can’t fight anymore, and as his life, mental state and finances spin out of control, the courts take Leila away because he’s a danger to himself and others.
After the long slide down, he decides to get his act together, starts working out with a past-his-prime trainer (Forest Whitaker) at a rundown gym, learns that fighting is about more than sheer power, and attempts a comeback. Because, in movies like this, aging trainers in squalid gyms always have a few life secrets they can impart to the once successful and foolish.
It’s hard to know what Southpaw would have been like if the filmmakers’ first choice for the role, Eminem, had decided to put on the gloves. But it’s doubtful he could have had any of the sheer swagger and palpable vulnerability Gyllenhaal manages over the course of the film.
Gyllenhaal is one of this era’s best young actors, something he has proven through a variety of tough roles over the years like Brokeback Mountain, End of Watch, Enemy and Nightcrawler, where his turn as an ambitious and insidious video journalist should have garnered an Oscar nomination. He brings to Billy a sense of humanity that goes beyond the script.
The rest of the cast is good as well, with the always solid Whitaker turning in a strong performance. And the film moves quickly through its two hours, with Fuqua shooting the boxing scenes with a visceral, in-your-face sensibility, eschewing any artier, Raging Bull intentions.
But it’s Gyllenhaal — bloody, beaten, yet unbowed — who burns deepest in the memory once the sound of the bell has faded.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhall, 50 Cent, Rachel McAdams.
Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Screenwriter: Kurt Sutter.
A Weinstein Company release. Running time: 123 min. Rated: R (strong language throughout, violence). Playing at: area theaters.