3 out of 4 stars
Jake Gyllenhaal is a ripped, tattooed, muscle-packed boxing machine in Southpaw, yet his most powerful scenes film happen outside the ring.
He’s Billy Hope, a junior heavyweight who has it all — an unblemished boxing record, a hot wife (Rachel McAdams) a cute daughter (Tony Award winner Oona Laurence), a mansion and luxury cars — until he doesn’t. In the ring,
He’s easy to like, at first. He delivers tender scenes with his wife and daughter, a stark contrast from the trash-talking monster when he’s in the ring. He’s more concerned with being healthy than insanely wealthy and wants to shield his daughter from boxing’s violence than having her watch him pummel opponents.
Then, he’s easy to hate. When Hope’s wife dies in an accidental shooting because he couldn’t walk away from a disrespectful contender following a charity dinner, he falls into a downward spiral in which he loses his belt in the ring and everything outside of it, including custody of his daughter, Leila.
The two-hour movie is at its best when Hope has been stripped and begins his predictable journey back to the top, beginning with beating the court system.
Southpaw’s story of optimism and redemption is told very well by director Antoine Fuqua, who casts Hope in the same, dark light he did for Denzel Washington in hits Training Day and The Equalizer.
Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation to go from a scrawny news reporter in Nightcrawler to a 34-year-old who looks and punches like the boxing champion he portrays, can’t be overstated.
Kurt Sutter, who was behind the FX smash hit Sons of Anarchy, deserves at least some credit for Gyllenhaal’s success. Sutter’s characters, specifically Hope’s shady manager played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Hope’s boxing rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), work well with Gyllenhaal. But the film’s biggest weakness is their characters aren’t given time to develop, which prevents the audience from becoming emotionally vested in wanting them to fail.
The same can’t be said for Forest Whitaker, who plays Tick Wills, a former big-time professional boxing trainer who runs a decrepit gym in a poor neighborhood to get kids off the streets. It’s here where Hope, who once defeated one of Wills best fighters, goes to get his life back.
The relationship between Wills and Hope is dynamic: Hope needs Wills to help him fix his broken life in and out of the ring; Wills needs something more to turn to than another shot of whiskey.
Of course, the two work together and magic happens. Hope regains his swagger and his title shot, and Wills reluctantly agrees to train him, giving both one last shot of redemption.
And of course, it’s a championship bout against Escobar, whose lack of face time detracts from the movie’s crescendo: a title fight in Las Vegas.
While the boxing footage isn’t as crisp as in 2010’s The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg, it’s believable, especially with announcers Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. providing commentary.
Southpaw is by no means Raging Bull, but it also isn’t Rocky V.
It’s a good movie that with a little more character development could have gone from delivering a strong right hook to a knockout.
Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 18 years experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He’s also an editor for CBSSports.com. He’s crossing his fingers the only baseball team in Baltimore that will contend for a title this summer won’t be his fantasy squad, the Catonsville Cartel. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game.