Movie review: ‘Southpaw’ is a split decision

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope in the film "Southpaw."
AP | The Weinstein Company



Directed By Antoine Fuqua

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Miguel Gomez, Naomi Harris

Rated R, Drama, 123 minutes

A shadow compared to former great boxing films (“Raging Bull” or “Rocky,” for example), “Southpaw” recounts the fictional story of a great boxer seeking redemption after falling on hard times. Written with ample suds by Kurt Sutter, the film rises above the printed word thanks to the affectionate direction of Antoine Fuqua and the fine performances he obtains from an array of talented actors.

Jake Gyllenhaal is earnest as quick-tempered pugilist Billy Hope. A product of the foster care system, Billy becomes light heavyweight champ, relying on his sensible wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and rightly trusting her to “make all the plans.” Billy’s crazy for their 10-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), a sweet, feisty girl and much more sensible than daddy.

About 20 minutes into the film, Billy’s bad temper contributes to Maureen’s death. He engages in a public brawl with would-be contender Miguel “Magic” Escobar (played with smirking self-assurance by Miguel Gomez), and Maureen is killed in the fallout.

Over the next 30 minutes, we witness Billy become unhinged and lose his title. Looking dapper and opportunistic, Billy’s manager-promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis Jackson) calls Billy in to drop him like yesterday’s news and advise Billy to sell his mansion. Because Billy is so upset when he makes his exit, Mains instructs security to follow the fighter and make sure he doesn’t break anything on his way out.

The court places Leila in state custody, and the bank repossesses Billy’s mansion and its contents before he is able to take control of his fate. Unfolding in a systematic manner from this point, the film’s outcome is never in doubt, so we don’t sweat Billy’s action. He does experience the occasional setback, though.

Appearing with well-developed abs and a six-pack, the excellently trained Gyllenhaal demonstrates an impressive ability to emulate a boxer’s moves and posture. Predictably brutal ring action emphasizes blood and sweat spatter, as Billy takes pounding after pounding before sometimes springing to life and delivering an almighty knockout punch.

The most engaging action arises when Billy’s new trainer, smart Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), decides Billy’s flat-footed style won’t cut it. Using ropes, Willis divides the ring into shoulder-high pie slices that Billy must bob and weave through while jabbing and protecting himself.

Against Willis’ instruction, Billy sometimes reverts to brawling instead of “fighting smart.” This exposes one of the film’s shortcomings, insisting the 35-year-old Billy can match his 25-year-old opponents in both stamina and endurance.

It’s a tribute to both the pacing of this production and its top-notch performers that we remain largely entertained despite its straightforward arc. The lack of dramatic suspense from the 60-minute mark until the film’s conclusion end this fight story with a split decision barely in its favor.

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