Jake Gyllenhaal Bleeds for Your Sins in Southpaw

Courtesy of the Weinstein Co.
Courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Opens July 24

At the beginning of Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s third film in as many years, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is standing in the ring, blood trickling down his face, screaming at his opponent—then he gets punched in the mouth. Unfortunately for the other guy, the more Billy gets hit, the harder he fights, and it isn’t long after his left eye is all but swollen shut that he claims victory with a KO.

Despite Billy’s persona in the ring, the light heavyweight champion is a family man. Not only have his fights given his family everything, but in one nicely observed moment, after a momentary lapse of patience, Billy kneels next to his daughter and instructs her to look him in the eye and listen; he has something very important to say. “I love you,” she blurts out almost before he can finish his preamble. He smiles. “You’re so predictable,” she adds. This has happened before.

Tragedy strikes. His wife is killed by a stray bullet after a scuffle breaks out between Billy and another boxer. Unable to cope, Billy spirals downward until he is forced to work himself up from scratch. In the process, the film goes from one cliché to another, like a post-9/11 Rocky in that our heroes today must avenge rather than prevent tragedy. A perfect social worker, an unlikely mentor (Forest Whitaker), a training montage, and a simultaneously vengeful and redemptive climax on familial and professional levels arrives exactly when expected; however, Gyllenhaal and Whitaker give strong performances, and Fuqua counterbalances his propensity for action clichés (slow-motion, blurred vision, pitch alteration) by shooting fights with an impressive variety of camera angles and by deploying sound—the roar of the crowd, the pummel of a landed punch, and the whiff of a miss—dynamically.

Those achievements keep Southpaw interesting enough, but they don’t differentiate it from any other male weepie with a budget. As Billy learns, a haymaker only works when nobody expects it—“make him miss; make him pay”—but any viewer will see Fuqua’s punches coming from a mile away. Unless you keep your guard down, they won’t land.


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