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Film review: Jake Gyllenhaal fights for redemption in orthodox boxing drama Southpaw

Gyllenhaal's visceral performance adds punch to lacklustre script

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 8:00am

What makes a good boxing movie? Your response to this could directly dictate the level of enjoyment you get out of Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, a conventionally plotted melodrama of truncated stock characters and an intensely visceral performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as a broken boxer. Devotees of nuanced character dramas should look elsewhere.

In the part originally slated for Eminem (who ended up contributing two songs and producing the soundtrack), Gyllenhaal continues his streak of idiosyncratic roles – from his creepy turn in Nightcrawler to the bruiser here and another eccentric widower in the upcoming Demolition – and lends the film the strong emotions it fails to conjure with its feeble script.

Southpaw opens to the heat of a battle that establishes Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), an undefeated light-heavyweight champion who spent his childhood in an orphanage, as a fighter who only unleashes his primal side when he’s battered and raging. It’s also this impulsiveness that robs Billy of his loving wife (Rachel McAdams) during a pointless fracas with a taunting potential rival.

As he consequently loses his entourage, his manager (Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent), his house and the custody of his young daughter (Oona Laurence), Billy heads straight to the gym of master trainer Wills (Forest Whitaker), who pledges strict discipline and a cleaning job – both fascinating challenges for the proud man that we only get to see glimpses of.

From Billy’s struggle to win back his child to his climatic showdown fight with a younger new champion (Miguel Gomez), the film walks a well-trodden path to redemption that has characterised countless other boxing dramas. But as misery piles up dramatically and often unconvincingly, Gyllenhaal’s full commitment remains Southpaw’s sole lasting attraction.

Southpaw opens on October 15