Southpaw features Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer who loses his wife, his daughter, his career, his self-respect, his car, his house, his manager, his friends, and nearly his life. But then, about 70 minutes into the film, he gets a chance to get it all back. Well, almost all of it. His wife is dead so he can’t get her back but there are hints that he might get together with a helpful social worker after the end credits role.
There was really only one reason why I was interested in seeing Southpaw and that’s because it starred Jake Gyllenhaal. Last year, Gyllenhaal gave the performance of his career in Nighcrawler. Gyllenhaal was so brilliant that you just knew the Academy was going to prove itself clueless by not nominating him. And that’s exactly what happened. Gyllenhaal was snubbed and, as a result, the Academy now owes him a nomination. When the trailer for Southpaw first appeared and we saw Gyllenhaal as muscular and bloody, a lot of us assumed that Southpaw would be the film that would get him that nomination.
And Jake Gyllenhaal does do a pretty good job in Southpaw. He’s one of the main reasons for seeing the film. It’s interesting to compare Gyllenhaal’s hyperactive performance and sickly appearance in Nightcrawler with his work as boxer Billy Hope in Southpaw. Billy is a professional brawler and you believe it when you look at him. Not only is he huge and muscular but he’s got a face that has obviously been punched more than a few times. When he speaks, he isn’t the hyper articulate con man of Nightcrawler and Love and Other Drugs. Instead, he stares at the ground as he mumbles and struggles to put together the simplest of thoughts. It’s a good performance but, at the same time, it lacks the element of surprise that Gyllenhaal has brought to his best roles in the past. You watched both Donnie Darko and Nightcrawler and you knew that only Gyllenhaal could have brought those roles to life. Billy Hope, however, is a far less interesting character and you could imagine any number of actors playing the role. (Reportedly, Southpaw was actually written with Eminem in mind and you really can see him playing the role.)
And really, the entire film is a lot like Billy Hope. It does its job but there’s nothing all that interesting about it. Southpaw‘s biggest surprise comes about 20 minutes into the film when Billy’s loving wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), is shot and killed and you already knew that was going to happen from the film’s trailer. After Maureen’s death, Billy starts using alcohol and drugs and, as a result, he loses custody of his daughter, Leila (12 year-old Oona Laurence, giving a great performance). Because this is a sports film, Billy has to hit rock bottom before, with the help of a grizzled and haunted trainer (Forest Whitaker), he can get a chance to win back both the championship and his daughter. Director Antoine Fuqua obviously know how to tell these type of testosterone-drenched stories but there’s not a single moment in Southpaw that you won’t see coming from miles away.
And don’t get me wrong. Unlike some other films that I was less than overwhelmed by, I can actually understand why some people in the theater applauded at the end of Southpaw. It’s an effective film, even if it does run on for a little bit too long. It tells a heartfelt story. It’s a crowd pleaser and I’m sure that a lot of people will enjoy it. But, for me, it was just too predictable. I like it when movies catch me off guard and that’s something that Southpaw never came close to doing.
A quick sidenote: Southpaw features the final score composed by the late James Horner and the film is dedicated to his memory. If you see the movie, be sure to stick around for the dedication so that you can put your hands together for a cinematic and musical legend.