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Southpaw Review: Jake Gyllenhaal Pulls No Punches

By Julian Roman — July 22nd, 2015

Southpaw has several flaws, but is ultimately a captivating experience. The powerhouse performance of star Jake Gyllenhaal lifts the film to a raw, emotional high. The actor vanishes like a chameleon in this role. It's stunning to see the lanky sociopath from last year's brilliant Nightcrawler, transformed into the chiseled and wounded bruiser of Southpaw. He is arguably the finest lead actor in Hollywood today. Director Antoine Fuqua takes a somewhat predictable story to a different level by putting the focus solidly on Gyllenhaal. The result is a film that doesn't show us anything new, but punches you in the gut with feeling.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as champion boxer Billy Hope. A simple man, but a ferocious fighter in the ring. His entire world revolves around his beloved wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence). The Hopes are a picture of happiness. Enjoying the success that pulled them out of poverty and the foster care system. Fate is cruel as Billy suffers an enormous tragedy. Unable to cope, he loses everything. His life spirals out of control. When the government takes away his child, Billy turns to the one thing that he knows - boxing. He reaches out to the only trainer that beat him, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker); to retake his life and hopefully, another shot at greatness.

Boxing movies are hit or miss. The usual storyline of the fighter going for the gold against all odds is front and center. So in that sense, Southpaw does fall prey to formula. It differentiates itself by keeping the audience invested in Billy's heartbreaking struggle. Writer Kurt Sutter's dialogue is spartan. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Hope as a quiet man that depended on the people around him to make the serious decisions. He did the fighting, made the money. When everything comes crashing down, Hope is totally unprepared to shoulder the burden. The journey, the comeback, which could have been corny as hell, is not. It's uplifting, amazingly so. There were more than a few tears in the audience during Southpaw.

My primary issue with Southpaw is the timeline of the story. Everything goes south very quickly for Billy Hope. Then like a boomerang, he's on the road to regaining his title. Antoine Fuqua 's pacing for the film is disjointed. It seems like the story shoots off like a rocket, then moves in chunks until the climax. Characters will say lines like, we'll see you in thirty days, then the next scene is that point in time. I feel like this could have been handled better by the director and the editor. It's like hitting a ball, then seeing someone catch it, without ever seeing the flight of the ball in the air. I can't help but think these were editing decisions to fit the film into a two hour runtime. Normally I'm all for cutting the fat, but the story in Southpaw could have used some extra grizzle between acts.

The fight scenes are well staged, bloody, and brutal. Jake Gyllenhaal gushes blood as his face is pounded like dough. The make-up is gruesome, maximized for effect by slow motion and close-ups. Jake Gyllenhaal is a snarling, feral creature in the ring. His astonishing physique glistening with blood and sweat. Southpaw's boxing scenes are all about intensity. There's nothing poetic or melodramatic here. If all you wanted to see in this film were good fights, you would be more than satisfied.

It would have been nice to have a more complex story. Southpaw plays to convention, but that doesn't make the journey of Billy Hope less engaging. Jake Gyllenhaal props up Southpaw on his mighty shoulders. He gives you a character that totally resonates. The film would have been a dud in a lessor actor's hands. The academy snubbed him last year for Nightcrawler. That's a better film than Southpaw, but the performance here is equally as good. Voters take notice, you're seeing greatness.

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