A taut boxing yarn about a champ who loses it all and has to fight his way back to keep custody of his daughter, Southpaw sticks to tried-and-tested genre rules, yet an edgy cast — led by formidable leading man Jake Gyllenhaal — keeps the story in sharp focus. Director Antoine Fuqua has shown his talent for bringing out the shadowy side of nice guys like Denzel Washington in The Equalizer and Training Day. Here Gyllenhaal gets the makeover as a bloodied, battered but magnetic prize-fighter. Set for a late July release after its competition bow at the Shanghai Film Festival, it has the chops to draw the high-testosterone male demographic, but feels too macho-centric to cross over to the Million Dollar Baby crowd. An award-worthy Gyllenhaal is the main attraction.
The role of light heavyweight champion Billy Hope was originally to be Eminem’s, but after he decided to ankle the project to concentrate on his music, Gyllenhaal climbed over the ropes. Though the tenderly handsome Nightcrawler star naturally looks about as much of a boxer as baby-faced Alain Delon in Rocco and His Brothers — which is to say, not at all — here the former Donnie Darko has been transformed into a tattooed, muscle-bound, raging bull gladiator. It’s even hard to recognize him in the opening shots, which emphasize Billy’s blood-soaked face and wild roar as he thunders at his opponent in Madison Square Garden, delivering the winning blows that make him world champ.
Back in the locker room, his sexy wife Maureen (a well-cast Rachel McAdams) looks on in pride and trepidation as the doctors sew his face back on and save his left eye. She wants him to quit while he still has a face, but then who would pay for their extravagant lifestyle and New York manse? Still, her concern for him seems genuine and their public affection signals how much in love they are. Making their happiness complete is their chipper 11-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), who adores them both, evolving into a central character as the film goes on.
Strutting, posturing, dazed-eyed Billy would make a caveman look non-aggressive, and being at the top of his game in the opening scene, he’s clearly cruising for a come-down. Maureen takes the first hit. Spoiler alert: She’s only around for the first half-hour before becoming the tragic consequence of a ferocious fist-fight between Billy and brash young contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who wants his title. But McAdams leaves behind the memory of a strong woman who has climbed up from the projects at her man’s side, a savvy manager and a loving wife and mother caught up in the contradictions of being married to a violent prize-fighter.
Billy shows the same kind of see-sawing ambiguity in his fighting. On the one hand he’s an unchained beast in the ring whose only instinct is to attack; on the other, his wife’s departure forces him to learn anger management, as well as how to put up his dukes and defend himself. After his life quickly — too quickly to be believable — crumbles around him, the second act slows down for some growing-up time away from the ring. Even boxing’s heights are portrayed as toxic, with suave, money-grabbing fight organizers like the one played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson having no qualms about turning a non-genius like Billy into putty in their greedy hands. The legal system seems equally cold and unjust in taking Leila away from him, though it also motivates him to mature into a responsible dad.
There’s nothing truly out-of-the-box in the competent first screenplay by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, which eventually trots out Forest Whitaker in the role of the gruff retired master trainer with a heart-of-gold, Tick Wills. After a suitable period of courtship, during which time Tick blows off Billy and insists he doesn’t train professionals, the two predictably pair off to prep for Billy’s big comeback fight for the world title in Vegas. Again, hats off to the actors and editor John Refoua who make this old chicken soup exciting to watch.
Mauro Fiore’s cinematography favors a shadowy, black-on-black look that highlights only key parts of faces and the set. The action scenes are pumped up and the emotional time-outs smoothed over softly with James Horner’s score that ranges from moody to rap.
The Weinstein Company and Wanda Pictures presentation of a Riche production in association with Escape Artists, Fuquafilms
Cast:Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, Rita Ora, Clare Foley, Beau Knapp, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Gomez
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Kurt Sutter
Producers: Todd Black, David Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Jerry Ye, Antoine Fuqua, Kat Samick
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Gillian Zhao, Cary Cheng, Jonathan Garrison, Kurt Sutter, David Bloomfield, David Ranes, Dylan Sellers, Ezra Swerdlow, Paul Rosenberg, Stuart Parr, David Schiff
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Derek R. Hill
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: John Refoua
Music: James Horner
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
No rating, 124 minutes