It’s hard to think of a more adventurous and versatile American actor of his generation than Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s become a chameleon of a performer; in just a year’s time he’s gone from his brilliant turn as the spindly opportunist Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler (for which he was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination) to his off-Broadway role as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors to this, his role of boxer Billy Hope in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw. It’s a knockout performance full of blood, sweat and tears and quite possibly the best of his career.
Billy “The Great” Hope is the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world. He’s on top; a beautiful wife, a loving daughter, a mega-mansion with a garage full of cars and an entourage he gives Rolex watches to. Even with the wealth and prestige though he’s a husband and father at heart. He kisses his daughter Leila (played the wonderful Oona Lawrence) goodnight while letting her count how many cuts he got in his latest fight (“Daddy, you got hit a lot.”). His beautiful wife Maureen (played by Rachel McAdams, in one of her best performances of late) is understandably, if predictably, concerned about his well-being. “You’ll be punch-drunk in two years,” she warns.
Gyllenhaal’s Hope is a man of means but one who’s never felt intelligent or comfortable speaking outside of his boxing environment. When asked to speak at a fundraiser for the Hell’s Kitchen orphanage that he and his wife Maureen came from he’s a scared, mumbled mess. “Your fancy dresses, your fancy suits…just give us this shit,” he blurts out to the crowd. Alternately, in situations of heightened tension he’s able to speak more clearly and even articulately, even when his actions are having a direct negative impact, as when he goes on a tirade against a judge who wants to take away his daughter.
But a happy family life in a movie like this can’t last for long. After winning his latest title he’s heckled at the post-fight press conference by an up and coming cocky fighter (and thinly fleshed out villain), Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). He wants a fight and he wants it now. He’s summarily dismissed and humiliated by both Billy and Maureen. Seeking a bit of public revenge, he taunts the couple as they leave a gala event (“I’ll take your belt and your bitch!”). Maureen begs him to let it go but Billy can’t and a melee ensues that sees Maureen killed by a stray bullet. It’s a well shot and acted sequence, heartbreaking in its quickness and fragility.
Then, all too quickly, Billy’s life spirals out of control melodrama. In just a matter of eight weeks (and only minutes on screen), he’s nearly broke, on drugs and drink, intentionally crashes his car, is suicidal and his daughter is taken away. His nefarious manger, played by 50-Cent dumps him for Escobar. It’s a bit too much too fast. Events are shown because they’re simply expected to happen. It’s a less organic process than it could be or should be.
Enter Tick Wills (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker), a former boxer who now owns a rundown gym in Washington Heights. You know the guy; you’ve seen him in every boxing movie too. He must bring our lead back to grace through hard work and spouts wisdom and witticisms necessary for a story like this. That said, the traditional training montage here is quite excellent. Restrained, thoughtful and beautifully choreographed by Terry Claybon, it’s one of the best sequences in the film.
Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) and editor John Refoua (The Equalizer) bring a perfect combination of out of the ring audience presentation to fist-to-face POV of the fight scenes and they’re raw and suspenseful. They have an urgency and believability that make the stakes real. The product placements like Rockstar and HBO also give authenticity to what we’re seeing. The late James Horner provides one of his best film scores in years; at times careful and subtle and even lush to appropriately confident and pugilistic when necessary.
Southpaw doesn’t break any new ground in the boxing genre and Kurt Sutter’s screenplay dips into the melodrama well too often and takes way too many shortcuts in order to simply hit the paint by numbers events to get Hope to the final fight but through a stellar lead performance and excellent technical assistance, Southpaw still lands a solid punch.
Southpaw opens July 24th and is released by The Weinstein Company and runs 124 minutes.