Jake Gyllenhaal has played cops, soldiers, even time-traveling action heroes, but he’s never looked less meek and sensitive, less Donnie Darko, than he does in Southpaw. As Billy Hope, a pugilist going several rounds with his personal demons, the actor sports a military buzz cut, a chin caked in dark stubble, and mounds upon mounds of glistening muscle. It’s a real blood, sweat, and tears kind of performance, extra emphasis on the blood: Crimson drips perpetually from a swollen eye or dangles from a clenched jaw, leaving red stains everywhere—on shirt collars, on pillowcases, on battered flesh. Physically speaking, the transformation is as impressive as the one Gyllenhaal underwent a year ago to embody the gaunt, wiry sociopath of Nightcrawler. But was this character, a boxer battling the myriad conventions of his genre, really worth the training regimen that brought him to life?
There are plenty of rags to riches stories. Southpaw is more riches to rags to riches again, with an extra dip into the rags column if you count Billy’s hard-knock-life upbringing. Rather than tell the origin story of an ex-convict who grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, the film cuts straight to his glory days as the Light Heavyweight champion of the world, rocking a 43-0 undefeated streak and winning his fourth consecutive title fight. Billy’s plan of attack is to let the other guy knock him around a little bit, until he’s angry enough to unleash the Raging Bull within. But that hair-trigger temper is less productive outside of the ring, as Billy learns when his beloved wife (Rachel McAdams) is accidentally shot and killed during a brawl with an instigating rival. Tortured by self-destructive anguish, our hero quickly loses his belt, his money, his mansion, his disloyal manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and his adorably bespectacled daughter (Oona Laurence), who’s taken away by Child Protective Services.
Is Billy Hope down and out for good? His last name, certainly not coincidental, should be some indication otherwise. After a sufficient brooding-in-the-shower period, the boxer stumbles into what looks like the gym from Million Dollar Baby, complete with a very Clint Eastwood-friendly lighting scheme, and begins training under a seasoned, seen-it-all crabapple (Forest Whitaker, whose lazy eye is incorporated into the narrative). “Boxing is like a chess game,” the old man tells the younger man, having apparently gathered all his pearls of wisdom from other movies. When not cleaning up after young gym rats—a real low for this recent millionaire—Billy hits speed bags during the kind of training montages Rocky IV should have permanently put out of commission.
Southpaw was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for Eminem, autobiographic in a loose and strictly metaphorical manner. Residue of the rapper’s involvement remains, and not just in the bombastic soundtrack cut he ended up supplying: The film has the corny underdog trajectory and cloying father-daughter material of a Slim Shady anthem; it’s maybe closer in spirit to “Lose Yourself” than 8 Mile was. Working from a macho-sentimental screenplay by Sons Of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, several joyless action movies that are not Training Day) only seems invested when Billy has his gloves on. The boxing scenes, shot by HBO fight-night veterans, are much more dramatic and authentic than the moments when people aren’t punching each other. Gyllenhaal, likewise, comes alive when he’s in the ring—he looks fairly natural ducking and weaving and jabbing—but can’t do much with a role that seems tailored to the persona and more limited acting range of Marshall Mathers.
Actually, had Eminem actually appeared in Southpaw, there’s a good chance it would have at least felt more personal, its clichés enlivened by the spectacle of an artist playing a proxy version of himself. What we get instead is a mostly humorless, “gritty,” run-of-the-mill sports drama about a weathered slugger who just wants to get his kid back, and whose road to redemption leads straight to a climactic showdown in Las Vegas with the cartoonishly despicable opponent (Miguel Gomez) who indirectly killed his wife. The film drums up some disdain for the opportunistic boxing promoters who would set up such a revenge-themed fight, as though it weren’t orchestrating that very same fictional bout itself. Beyond a solidly rousing score by the late James Horner and a couple of well-staged matches, all Southpaw really has going for it is the athletic conviction of its star, putting on the pounds to credibly portray a top-ranked prizefighter. But all of Gyllenhaal’s discipline and drive is misdirected; it’s wasted energy, a cinematic rope-a-dope.