By now, you’ve probably heard a lot about Jake Gyllenhaal’s astonishing physical transformation for his latest film, Southpaw. What you’ve probably heard less of is just how formulaic the movie swirling around his ripped abs and inked torso is. Film acting is a slippery art to discuss. When it’s done well, it involves nuance and the subtle sublimation of self—most of which is imperceptible and utterly mysterious. It’s why we mistake drastic weight fluctuations and Method stunts for a great performance. Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw performance is great, but for reasons unrelated to his physique. He’s thrilling to watch and the only unpredictable thing in a two-hours-plus movie where you can count on one hand the number of moments that aren’t hand-me-downs from better boxing films like Rocky, Raging Bull, and Fat City.
The movie’s title refers to a fighter who uses his left fist as his agent of destruction. Since most lead with their right, an uppercut from the south side can pack a devastating surprise wallop. Gyllenhaal’s light-heavyweight champion, Billy Hope (an unfortunately on-the-nose name), isn’t a natural southpaw, but it’s the stealth weapon he’ll unleash as his rags-to-riches-to-rags saga reaches its inevitable riches-again finale. At the beginning of the film, we see Billy’s hands being wrapped before the fight that will earn him the championship belt, while his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who’s been by his side since they were kids in a Hell’s Kitchen foster home, gives him a steely pep talk. The good times won’t last. After a tragedy sparked by a showboating rival (Miguel Gomez), Billy loses everything: Maureen, his daughter (Oona Laurence), his fortune, and his will to live.
Yes, Southpaw is a redemption story, that hoariest of feel-good subgenres. But Gyllenhaal manages to give Billy a raw inner fire that’s more impressive than anything the actor’s achieved with his personal trainer. Coming off a string of dazzling, career-redefining roles in films like last year’s Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal turns Billy’s pain into an inarticulate rage. You get the sense that the ring is a place where he finds peace through oblivion. At his lowest point, Billy humbles himself and asks the owner of a skid-row gym (Forest Whitaker) for help getting back on top and gets the sort of gruff life lessons ripped from the Burgess Meredith playbook. Gyllenhaal and Whitaker’s wary friendship is the film’s high point. But just as director Antoine Fuqua starts to close in on something interesting and unexpected, he retreats to the safety of his corner and gives us what we’ve seen too many times before: a predictable flurry of melodramatic jabs when what he really needed to throw at us was a haymaker we couldn’t see coming—the knockout punch of a southpaw. C+