Rating: R
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gomez
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Release Date: July 24, 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope in SOUTHPAW | © 2015 The Weinstein Co.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope in SOUTHPAW | © 2015 The Weinstein Co.

SOUTHPAW has one big plot twist the unspoiled may not see coming. Otherwise, even though it’s scripted by SONS OF ANARCHY creator Kurt Sutter, this boxing drama is solid but standard fare.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as boxing champ Billy Hope, whose victories are fueled by rage. However, when he’s outside the ring, his life revolves around beloved wife Mo (Rachel McAdams) and precocious daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Through a tragedy with intentionally bewildering details, Billy loses just about everything, including the legal ability to fight and custody of Leila. After spending some time hitting bottom and then falling further, Billy at last takes himself to a gym owned by one-time great trainer and long-ago boxer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker).

Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are so absolutely sincere and bone-deep in what they’re doing that we believe in their characterizations at every moment, even though it’s clear where all of this is going. The riches to rags to redemption story is handled with visual flair and grit by director Antoine Fuqua. However, the boxing matches aren’t terrifying and grueling – there are scenes where we should be in mortal fear that someone will die or at least be permanently disabled, and instead, we’re simply seeing one fight at a time. In a way, this is honest – viewers of real prize fights don’t have insight into training strategies or the fighters’ states of mind – but it’s also not especially gripping emotionally.

We do get some notion of what boxing represents to Billy, as opposed to what it represents to Mo, as opposed to how Leila views Daddy’s job, but this winds up serving more as character background than anything that gets real philosophical play.  It seems like Billy’s up-from-nowhere opponent Escobar (Miguel Gomez) might have an interesting point of view about what he does to get ahead and the unintended fallout, but we stay resolutely with Billy’s trajectory instead. This is handled fairly and honestly. Likewise, there’s the hint of a grudge match with higher than usual stakes, but the film and the characters both move away from this before it is ever a solid possibility.

SOUTHPAW leaves us with the impression that the major creative impulse here was to see some gifted actors going to some powerful emotional and physical places, rather than to say anything new about boxing as a sport, or even about the effect it has on its practitioners. The main reasons to see the film are Gyllenhaal and Whitaker, and they are worthy, but few viewers will come away with new insights on the topic at hand.

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