Film Review: ‘Southpaw’

Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Jake Gyllenhaal undergoes a solid if strenuous transformation as a boxer reeling from tragedy in Antoine Fuqua's heavy-handed melodrama.

You can practically smell the blood, the sweat and the fierce actorly commitment rising from Jake Gyllenhaal’s bruised and tattooed body in “Southpaw,” a bluntly conventional melodrama about a champion boxer forced to undergo a grim crucible of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. Yet the undeniable intensity of Gyllenhaal’s bulked-up, Method-mumbling performance may leave you feeling more pummeled than convinced in this heavy-handed tale of redemption, in which director Antoine Fuqua once more demonstrates his fascination with codes of masculine aggression, extreme violence and not much else. Creakily plotted over the course of its rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectory, this partly Chinese-funded production may land enough visceral blows to catch on with audiences on its July 24 release through the Weinstein Co., but seems less likely to attain the prestige-hit status of superior efforts like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter.”

That didn’t stop exec producer Harvey Weinstein from loudly speculating at a recent Cannes sneak-peek screening that Gyllenhaal would receive an Oscar nomination for his arresting transformation here, partly as “revenge” for his perceived snub in the best actor race for last year’s “Nightcrawler.” A master awards strategist like Weinstein certainly knows of what he speaks, though in this case his words tell us less about the quality of Gyllenhaal’s performance than they do about the corruption of a system that favors big, showy stunt acting above all else, and that too often hands out acting awards for reasons that are compensatory rather than merit-based. “Revenge,” meanwhile, is a particularly ironic word choice for this particular story, which puts our hero on a collision course with the man who may have cost him everything, and rather shamelessly stokes his appetite for retribution and ours.

A rough-around-the-edges type who emerged from a life of Hell’s Kitchen foster homes and jail cells to achieve major success in the ring, light heavyweight boxing champ Billy “the Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) seems to have everything, living a life of luxury with a wife he adores, Maureen (a strong Rachel McAdams), and their precocious young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). But fame comes with the usual pitfalls, and Maureen wants her husband to take a break, not only so he can spend more time with his family, but also because she fears that his ferocious, no-holds-barred boxing style will get him seriously injured or worse. Naturally, it’s Maureen who will pay the ultimate price for her perceptiveness, succumbing to an accidental gunshot wound after Billy has a violent confrontation with a trash-talking rival, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

Reeling from this senseless tragedy, Billy quickly descends into a spiral of anger, despair, substance abuse, poverty and violence, and winds up losing his house, his longtime manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and, worst of all, Leila, who’s placed in the care of family services. Determined to win back custody of his daughter and gradually revive his boxing career, he takes a menial job cleaning toilets at a rundown boxing gym owned by Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who reluctantly agrees to oversee Billy’s training despite his distaste for the world of professional boxing. The sort of tough-love mentor who forbids drinking and swearing in his gym (yet is not immune to either vice), Tick takes a higher-minded view of the sport, giving Billy the sort of athletic education that prioritizes technique, discipline and confidence over anger, retaliation and brute force.

Particularly during the film’s first half, Fuqua deploys such a heavy directorial hand that he all but puts a chokehold on the material; he doesn’t seem to be observing Billy’s decline so much as actively trying to break his spirit, as though having the character hit rock bottom numerous times would encourage our empathy rather than leave us feeling crudely manipulated. Fortunately, despite a third-act finale that all too conveniently allows Billy to settle his score with fate, “Southpaw” largely avoids devolving into a sort of pugilistic “Death Wish” (which comes as something of a relief, given the over-the-top Grand Guignol payback in the helmer’s previous outing, “The Equalizer”). The boxing scenes themselves are dynamically lensed and cut (by d.p. Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua, respectively), and Fuqua (a boxer himself) favors a wide array of camera angles — sometimes adopting the up-close perspective of Billy’s opponent, sometimes taking a ringside seat, yet always seeking to position the viewer in the midst of a gaudy, tawdry, pulse-pounding spectacle.

At the same time, the filmmakers seem well aware that nothing they show us can really rival the spectacle of Gyllenhaal himself, who throws himself into the role of Billy Hope with the sort of go-for-broke abandon that makes even his creepy, gollum-like turn in last year’s “Nightcrawler” look like a drama-class exercise by comparison. Having shed 15 pounds (and seemingly a few IQ points) for the part, Gyllenhaal has never looked rougher or tougher onscreen; with his closely cropped hair, his swollen face, his perpetually bloodied left eye, his skin drawn tautly across his muscles, he’s virtually unrecognizable here, which for some will be more than enough to satisfy the expectations of a truly great performance. Strangest of all is the actor’s voice, which sounds as though it’s dropped at least an octave, and his decision to speak in rumbling, inarticulate half-sentences, with almost every other word an expletive. It’s a solid if strenuous piece of acting, one that never lets us forget every ounce of effort that went into achieving it.

Gyllenhaal has a handful of sturdy moments with Whitaker, who makes a fine foil in the role of the gruff old trainer, but the star has more difficulty establishing a credible father-daughter rapport with Laurence. As she demonstrated recently in Ross Partridge’s indie drama “Lamb,” Laurence is one of the year’s more remarkable child-acting discoveries, but she has little opportunity to show what she’s capable of here, largely because the movie forces Leila to lash out at her deadbeat dad in ways that feel more dramatically expedient than psychologically persuasive. Perhaps the central failing of this first feature screenplay by Kurt Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) is that it never gets beyond its protagonist’s simplistic worldview, treating Leila more or less as a prop to be brought in and stir up periodic conflict, and likewise reducing the figure of Miguel to a one-dimensional villain. A callous subplot involving an at-risk teenager at Tick’s gym strikes a particularly misguided note.

Production designer Derek R. Hill’s sets are convincingly inhabited, and the film makes effective use of Pennsylvania locations to capture the lavish and squalid extremes of Billy’s lifestyle (with boxing-match detours to Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas). James Horner’s synth score adds to the film’s brooding tenor, while the soundtrack was produced by Eminem, who was once floated as a possibility to play Billy Hope, and who might well have done more with the role — which is to say, less.

Film Review: 'Southpaw'

Reviewed at Weinstein Co. screening room, Beverly Hills, June 16, 2015. (In Shanghai Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

A Weinstein Co. release presented with Wanda Pictures of a Riche production in association with Escape Artists and Fuqua Films. Produced by Antoine Fuqua, Jerry Ye, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch. Executive producers, Paul Rosenberg, Stuart Parr, David Schiff, Dylan Sellers, Ezra Swerdlow, Kurt Sutter, David Bloomfield, David Ranes, Gillian Zhao, Cary Cheng, Jonathan Garrison, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Co-producer, Kat Samick.

Crew

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Screenplay, Kurt Sutter. Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Mauro Fiore; editor, John Refoua; music, James Horner; music supervisor, John Houlihan; production designer, Derek R. Hill; art director, Gregory Weimerskirch; set decorator, Merissa Lombardo; costume designer, David Robinson; sound (Dolby Digital), Ed Novick; sound designer, David Esparza; supervising sound editor, Mandell Winter; re-recording mixers, Steve Pederson, Daniel J. Leahy; stunt coordinator, John Cenatiempo; fight coordinator, Terry Claybon; boxing consultant, Lou DiBella; assistant directors, Nick Mastandrea, Jamie Marshall; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With

Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Skylan Brooks, Beau Knapp, Rachel McAdams, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Malcolm Mays.

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  1. I have to say asia mays an excellent boxer.

  2. Rob says:

    I don’t usually like boxing pictures. And I usually don’t follow reviews that sound so opinionated and so ” I’m better than all of you”
    I just saw the movie and it was a little high handed — but I loved it . Jake gives an outstanding performance full of drama emotion and deep feelings. See Mr Reviewer apparently has never dealt with children from low income and beaten down lives. He has no idea of real emotion or human feelings. I urge people to see this movie

  3. Babette Ward says:

    I never read “professional reviews” before I see a movie. If I relied on these “professional” opinions I would miss out on some really great movies.

  4. Babette Ward says:

    I thought this was a good movie with a GREAT performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. I hope he does get an Oscar. I loved his performance. I’m not a fan of any actor in particular but this is my favorite performance by Gyllenhaal of all the movies I’ve seen him in. I had not paid attention to the movie previews so I didn’t expect what happened to his wife at all. I’m not a boxing movie fan so I never intended to watch this movie. The plot was somewhat predictable but it was still an emotional and entertaining movie👍👍 from me.

  5. Donna Francis says:

    This is the best movie I have watched in the last 10 years. I actually quit going to the movies because the last couple years their not worth the money to see. Jake Gyllenhaal deserves an academy award for his performance, and Rachael McAdams gave a wonderful performance also. I watched the movie 3 times and called my sons and told them they had to see it.

  6. c says:

    I already knew this movie was shit before I read this review. But it’s still fun to hear people complaining about it, and even more fun to see the chumps that excitedly coughed up 12 bucks to see it in theaters call the reviewer “jealous.” I advise those bitter fans of this movie (which I will refer to as “Lefthand”) to keep searching google until they find a positive review so they will feel better. Good luck with that crap.

  7. clmyrus says:

    “I dont know him anymore…” after being ripped apart from the only parent she loved that’s left???? WTF I should be producer of this SHIT film!!!

  8. This movie was terrible.

  9. Richiepooh says:

    Not the best review, but then not much good to say about the film…Chang done the best he can with what he had to work with. Positive comments are hard to find in this bile.

  10. tom says:

    Please stop doing reviews. Thank you.

  11. toni says:

    Had to add. As a woman I saw a lot of things about the relationships going on. The final scene where the other boxer tried to push Jake that rage came out totally. Just like his daughters’ anger. I have seen that before. I also felt Forest w. I plan to see it again to review Jake and wife dynamics. Together they all made this film pop!

  12. toni says:

    Loved it! Everyone brought the film to life. And the music got me totally caught up. That last song tipped it way over in the positive

  13. nyfilmguy says:

    Spot on review. Hard to get excited about being fed a formulaic film like this, let alone about JG’s adequate but over-hyped efforts.

  14. David Perez says:

    To the reviewer, I have not seen the movie yet, I definitely will thanks to your MORONIC review. How about being impartial for starters.How did you get your job anyway?! The people posting comments on your stupid review have better skills than you!

  15. I could not help but feel slightly embarrassed for this reviewer. He seems to have an almost personal disdain for Jake Gyllenhall that borders on jealousy. Reading it made me feel a little like I was watching Michael Scott(Steve Carell) on The Office during a particularly flinch worthy scene… you know, where it hurt to watch because you were so embarrassed for him.

  16. southpaw says:

    SERIOUSLY FIRE THIS IDIOT. come on i can write abusive shit and call it a review, FIRE THIS MORON. DISGUSTING, wont buy or subscribe until idiots like this are not reviewing for you, also SPOILER ALERT would have been nice MORON just listed the ENTIRE PLOT… FIRE THE IDIOT WHO WROTE THIS

  17. KD. says:

    To add: a lot of the descriptions here evoke another contempo stylizing of old-fashioned melodrama, La Mome. Stock characters, inorganic conflict as plot device. Cotillard in her geriatric scene was also a grand spectacle: stylized and strenuously suffering through her body and long-gone mind. What the review jeers at as failings, are staples of this very archaic tradition of grand-style melodrama (think writhing, chest-heaving, visceral emphasis.)

  18. KD. says:

    “last year’s “Nightcrawler” look like a drama-class exercise” = If this refers to scenes where he came across a total amateur, namely his long monologue in the TV station (owned by the Church of Scientology in real life)…The context was precisely his selling himself to her, as a naive newbie with harmless aspirations. It was a key scene for beginning her “mentorship” of him. So disarmed, she had no idea it would go so awry, with tables completely turned.

  19. KD. says:

    “Shed…a few IQ points… rumbling, inarticulate …strenuous” = Is this the movie’s shorthand for boxer’s brain damage, from his fighting style?

    “One that never lets us forget every ounce of effort that went into achieving it.” = Effortless machismo indeed gets crix love, unless it’s the spiritually suffering women in a Bergman movie!

  20. John Mullins says:

    I’m no film reviewer, but it seems like poor journalism to declare your agenda in the first paragraph of a review– “…in which director Antoine Fuqua once more demonstrates his fascination with codes of masculine aggression, extreme violence and not much else.”

    Maybe just reviewing the film for what it is might be better?

  21. My Jurassic Pants says:

    No boxer’s body has ever looked like Gyllenhaal’s in this film. This is a shallow vanity project for all involved and won’t even make a blip at the box-office with all of the other big films yet to come this summer.

    I also can’t imagine a woman wanting to see this film as the trailer had to be the ugliest-looking film I’ve ever seen. I think they may have broken the “add grain” filter in post!

  22. SonOfTheYellowKing says:

    IS JAKE ALL NATURAL???

  23. Mantle Head says:

    It’s a good twist on the genre to have the wife shot dead by association, but the critic is right about the rest. Have no interest to watch a boxer spiral in despair over and then bash someone up. It’s a mesh doesn’t work, the trailer tells me that. Gyllenhaal deserves better than a boxing melodrama… I was surprised he did this film, the script is hokey and pulls its emotional punches.

  24. Scarlett says:

    So not a Gyllenhaal fan huh?

  25. George Valentin says:

    I hope Harvey Weinstein is correct with his prediction of Jake Gyllenhaal being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.

  26. Oxana says:

    “Having shed 15 pounds (and seemingly a few IQ points) for the part”
    Mistake. He GAINED 15 pounds after he’d lost 30 pounds for Nightcrawler

  27. James says:

    Frustrating that this Is so anti-gyllenhaal on a personal level

  28. braiden bowls says:

    This might be the most ridiculous film review I’ve read this year. Sounds like the critic had a bad day. Shame.

  29. Jake says:

    Lmao. This review is amazing.

  30. Geri McCall-Barrath says:

    How do I delete posts? When I click on unsubscribe it tells me I’m deleting my “subscription to Variety”.

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