Four out of five stars
Just the name of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Southpaw -- Billy Hope -- tells you this film has no intention of pulling punches when it comes to time-honored boxing movie clichés.
But sometimes, clichés work, especially when the filmmakers are clear about their intentions. That’s exactly what writer Kurt Sutter ("Sons of Anarchy," "The Shield") and director Antoine Fuqua do at the very beginning of "Southpaw."
We get a boxing match, with the ring announcers providing exposition. Billy Hope is the light heavyweight champion of the world, he’s from Hell’s Kitchen, his beautiful wife and childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) root him on from ringside. The announcers also point out, as if we can’t see for ourselves, that Billy is taking a beating, but that’s Billy’s way.
Now, think really hard. Know of any other cinematic pugilists who would also take a beating until they got their opponent right where they wanted them, then BOOM! Knockout! That’s pretty much what happens here. At a post-fight press conference, contender Miguel “Magic” Escobar implores Hope to give him some hope and grant him a shot at the title. Again, it's a scene reminiscent of just about every boxing movie you've ever seen.
Later, at their palatial estate, we see Billy bond with his daughter, Leila (a wonderful young actress named Oona Laurence), which is adorable, and then we see Maureen beg Billy to quit the boxing game. She thinks it’s starting to take him too long to win fights and fears he's destined to become “punch drunk.”
Then tragedy strikes. Billy loses everything, including his home, his boxing title and his boxing license -- but most importantly, he loses custody of Leila. That’s when he turns to boxing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who owns a gym in Harlem and specializes in helping troubled kids.
Tick has his troubles. Billy has his. Seeing Gyllenhaal and Whitaker butt heads as they breathe life into those issues is the real fight worth watching here. Everything else is the undercard. These two are heavyweights -- an Oscar-winner in Whitaker and, I believe, a future, multiple Oscar-winner in Gyllenhaal.
I'm telling you, Gyllenhaal is the next Daniel Day-Lewis. He has become that good. I don’t care if they were reciting Rocky line-for-line, Gyllenhaal alone is more than worth the price of admission here.
Antoine Fuqua ("The Equalizer") also does what Fuqua does best -- present a palpable, gritty realism that keeps your eyes glued to the screen and your heart tethered to the story.
"Southpaw" isn’t a great movie but it is a great performance piece, not just for Gyllenhaal and Whitaker but also for young Laurence, who practically upstages Gyllenhaal’s remarkable work with her earnest, heartbreaking presence.