After losing 20 pounds to play the psychotic Lou in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal bulks up to play boxer Billy Hope (subtle) in “Southpaw”. After tragedy strikes, Hope is separated from his daughter and must put his life back together, and he turns to an aging trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get him back in the ring. Antoine Fuqua directs.
Just as he has done in his recent films like “Prisoners” and the aforementioned “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal again dominates the screen with his method-acting presence. It may not be his strongest performance, and it almost certainly won’t win him any awards, but his Billy Hope is a heart-wrenching, torn character that Gyllenhaal dives into. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the movie doesn’t pack the same punch (boxing puns).
Most of the film is done so heavy-handed and in such workmanlike style that it doesn’t add anything new or fresh to the genre. Director Fuqua (known best recently for action films “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer”) continues to go for style over substance in his films. In “Southpaw,” he never misses a chance to shove a visual metaphor down the audience’s throat, such as Gyllenhaal standing at the bottom of a dark staircase looking up (get it? Because he’s got to climb his way back up out of the darkness to the top!). Fuqua also feels the need to put the camera close to the actors, in an effort to force us to feel their pain (this is a pretty bleak film), instead of letting the actors do what they’re paid to do and convey the emotions naturally.
Speaking of said actors, every one of them brings their A-game; “Southpaw” would be nothing without its leading cast of Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and Rachel McAdams. Gyllenhaal and Whitaker have believable albeit not too moving chemistry as boxer-and-trainer, and McAdams crushes every scene she is in as Billy’s wife. The daughter in the film (Oona Laurence) gives one of the better performances by a kid actor that I’ve seen in a while, having to portray a young girl who has lost contact with her father and is confused and angry with the world around her.
Unfortunately, everything comes back to the standard narrative in “Southpaw.” The cliché story of redemption can be expected, but on numerous occasions plot points are dropped or overcome far too easily. For example, Forest Whitaker’s character says he doesn’t drink, yet a few scenes later we see him drunk in a bar, with the only excuse being, “what, a guy can’t pick up a new habit?” There is also a shooting in the film, and in several instances the film mentions how they still don’t have a suspect. Spoiler alert: that case is never brought to resolution, it kind of just fades away. Which is lazy for the plot, but also frustrating because you are genuinely interested in who pulled the trigger, as it isn’t clear in the scene.
For those who demand very basic storytelling and just want to see tales of redemption of broken men, “Southpaw” may work. But I found that the great acting and admittedly moving finale were not enough to overcome the film’s familiarities and slack storytelling, which is a disappointment because Gyllenhaal deserves better than to be stuck in an average film. All these actors deserve better (well, except maybe 50 Cent).