Gyllenhaal delivers a knockout performance despite the movie's countless clichés.
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Professional boxers aren’t typically renowned for their eloquence. Pre-fight press conferences tend to centre around the two combatants standing silently and mashing their foreheads together, whilst the post-fight ones rarely escalate beyond monosyllabic grunts and the flaunting of novelty-sized belts. Maybe it’s the boxers' traditionally low socio-economic backgrounds at play, maybe it’s the almost guaranteed head trauma, or perhaps they’re simply still trying to figure out why a square arena is called a ‘ring’ and why anybody thought ‘light heavyweight’ wouldn’t sound ridiculous as a fighting category.
In Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal plays one such professional ‘boxymoron', and he takes the inarticulacy to the extreme - presenting his character Billy Hope as a man who drools in the place of dialogue. It’s a bold choice for the accomplished actor, whose commitment to both it and the role’s physicality can't be overstated. One glance at the posters for Southpaw is enough to see that Gyllenhaal got jacked for this film, with muscles so enormous they should almost receive separate billing. He looks like a boxer, moves like a boxer and absolutely sounds like a boxer, meaning - in Southpaw - we totally believe him as a boxer. It’s a phenomenal performance, and without it the movie would be a complete write off.
Director Antoine Fuqua is fast establishing himself as the go-to action director in Hollywood, much like John Woo was in the 90s. With recent offerings including Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, he’s continued to deliver slick, high octane pictures without ever quite managing to repeat the success of his breakthrough film Training Day. The problem isn’t with the direction so much as the scripts, whose stories and dialogue languish in a mire of clichés. Southpaw is another example of this, failing to offer anything new despite coming tantalisingly close at its preface. The film’s early scenes touch upon compelling themes of administrative oversight, bureaucratic corruption, capricious management and the threat of ‘punch drunkeness’ courtesy of Hope’s particular fighting style in which he shirks defence and absorbs countless blows from his opponent until it makes him angry enough to retaliate. All of this largely falls by the wayside, however, as soon as family tragedy strikes and Hope finds himself bankrupt and alone. Redemption, then, becomes the order of the day, but the problem is we neither feel particular involved in it nor satisfied when it inevitably comes. This isn’t so much a tale of personal growth as it is one of reinstitution, where the only thing Hope really learns by the end is how not to get punched.
Eminem was originally slated to play Gyllenhaal's role, but in his absence the roles of ‘singers trying to act’ were taken up by 50 Cent and Rita Ora, both delivering adequate performances as line delivery systems. Rachel McAdams pops in as a caricature of a boxer’s WAG and Oona Laurance does a decent job as Hope’s young daughter despite often unspeakably bad lines to work with. The only real other performance of note is from Forest Whitaker as Hope’s eventual trainer, whose brief screen time nonetheless reminds us why he’s one of the most gifted actors of his generation. He seems to find things in scripts that not even the writer could see, and injects some much needed humanity into Southpaw’s later stages when neither the boxing nor the family troubles prove capable of sustaining the drama.