Movie review: Not even a shockingly ripped Donnie Darko can punch up Southpaw's soapy script | Arts

Movie review: Not even a shockingly ripped Donnie Darko can punch up Southpaw's soapy script


Jake Gyllenhaal got ripped for his role as a struggling boxer in Southpaw. - COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
  • courtesy of The Weinstein Company
  • Jake Gyllenhaal got ripped for his role as a struggling boxer in Southpaw.
★★ ½ 
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Costarring Jake Gyllenhaal and his torso, Southpaw is a technically competent but largely uninteresting boxing movie with the soapiest script this side of the daytime Emmys. The movie's main appeal is watching Gyllenhaal muscle his way through it with a powerful physical performance.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Southpaw chronicles the fall of light heavyweight champ Billy Hope, a brawler who wins matches with stamina and rage. Billy has an inhuman tolerance for punishment—the more punches he takes, the stronger he gets. And Billy has taken a lot of punches in his life. Raised in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage and on the mean streets of New York City, he's a survivor whose steely toughness is etched into every muscle and scar.

But a brutal tragedy near the beginning of the film proves to be a knockout blow, costing Billy his family, title and fortune. He is finally reduced to cleaning up at the local boxing gym, where veteran trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) suggests that Billy's defensive strategies—in boxing and in life—may not be working out: "Stopping punches with your face is not a defense."

Will Billy find the inner strength and resolve to fight his way back and win his daughter's love? Will Tick provide grizzled-old-trainer wisdom from his corner of the ring? Will a crooked promoter and a villainous opponent present themselves as obstacles? Will everything be resolved in a climactic Big Fight at the end?

These questions are dutifully answered in a script that's surprisingly conventional and occasionally melodramatic. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter is a veteran of edgy TV crime dramas (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy), but the story he delivers here is as worn and familiar as an old pair of gym shoes. With each passing plot point, the feeling resurfaces: Haven't we seen this movie before? Several times? With multiple sequels?

On the upside, Fuqua is a director who can stage violence with the best of them, and he makes sure we're inches from the action as Billy takes his hits in and out of the ring. The fight cinematography is something to be savored, as the restless camera dances around and between the fighters. In one sequence, Fuqua even goes for a daredevil POV perspective, pummeling his audience.

Gyllenhaal's performance is genuinely impressive. His physicality suggests the pain of a career fighter who can go 12 rounds on fury and discipline, but can barely get out of bed in the morning. Also on hand are Rachel McAdams as Billy's wife, Naomie Harris as a concerned social worker and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as a flashy, predatory manager. That man sure can wear a suit.

Southpaw is at its best when heavyweight performers Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are on screen together, exchanging intenser-than-thou glares and gravelly tough-guy dialogue. A more interesting script would have dropped the overcooked boxing-as-opera approach and simply followed these two characters as they compare psychic scars.

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