In a world where athletic achievement is often equated with actual heroism, sports movies are the go-to vehicle for redemption stories. There’s little need for metaphor when our hero can literally triumph over opponents and when vengeance can be broadcast through cheering stadiums with flashing lights. The one-on-one format of boxing, formerly one of America’s most beloved sports, is virtually made for both cinematic underdogs and phoenixes rising from their ashes. Southpaw is the latter, and it unleashes a flurry of nearly every boxing movie cliché out there, ultimately taking some dedicated acting performances and turning them into a bloody mess.

Jake Gyllenhaal has gone full Christian Bale for Southpaw. Willowy and gaunt in last year’s sterling Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal had starved himself to the point of losing 30 lbs for that unforgettable role, only to turn around and bulk up to play the ridiculously chiseled light-heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope. As happens at the beginning of most redemption stories, we open with Billy on top of the mountain. Through his brutal physical ability, he’s pulled himself out of a childhood spent in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, where he also met his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Prone to only getting into the zone with the taste of blood in his mouth, Billy rose to become an undefeated champ and mansion-dwelling millionaire based on his tenacity alone. Blood gushing from his face, he simply refuses to lose. He and Maureen have a perfect life and a darling daughter, until tragedy inevitably strikes in one of the more contrived ways possible.

Without giving too much away, said tragedy leaves Billy without Maureen by his side to make all his decisions for him. He quickly tumbles into a pit of despair and is stripped of all he holds dear. His mansion is foreclosed upon, he loses his title and is stripped of his boxing license, his manager (50 Cent) ditches him for a rival whose entourage had a hand in the aforementioned tragedy and, worst of all, his daughter (Oona Laurence) is taken by child services and begins to hate him. A hard pill to swallow for a guy who used to get paid millions of dollars to fight like a berserker. Good thing he decides to take a janitor job at an inner city gym for disadvantaged youth and starts training again with a grizzled, one-eyed coach named Tick (Forest Whitaker). Despite previously holding a 43-0 record by throwing punches like a wildman, Billy needs Tick to teach him some fundamentals and maybe some life lessons along the way. Does he rise up and reclaim glory in a vengeance match against the very man who indirectly robbed him of his happiness? Perhaps.

To his credit, Gyllenhaal pours himself into the role, though his character development lacks anything beyond a testosterone-infused melodrama. (Gyllenhaal is also making a habit of freaking out in front of mirrors.) Billy owes everything in his life to his fists and to his machismo, and by the film’s end the only thing that he’s changed besides his fighting stance is his ability to achieve the basic functions of a father. The boxing scenes themselves are expertly shot and give the first and third acts some energy, but flashy cinematography doesn’t make blood-sport any more profound. The middle portion of the film is pure melodrama, one that piles on the despair in a vain attempt to make Billy’s plight something close to meaningful.

Southpaw is a film bereft of anything but the most cookie-cutter emotions. A man loves his daughter and misses his wife. Gut-punching misery ensues. This is the basis of countless great stories when thoroughly-developed characters flesh out that basic premise. The root of all suffering is desire, after all. But when a guy gets overpaid to pummel other people to pulp, fucks up and loses everything only to relearn how to pummel other people into pulp in a more disciplined way, we’re left with a macho fantasy and little more. Moral of the story: people love winners and hate losers. Southpaw may have some slick moves, but its script could use a lot more punch.

  • David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Columbia Pictures' LIFE.


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