Southpaw is director Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day) violent boxing drama about love, revenge and redemption, which sees its jacked-up star, Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), fight to save not only his reputation but his family. Boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is a light heavy-weight champion that has risen from a life on the streets to one of fame and riches. Although at the top of his game, his devoted wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), fears that if he continues to fight that he might face serious injury or worse. But when a tragic accident takes her life, he loses everything, including his adoring daughter (Oona Laurence) to child protective services. Now he must fight one last time to get her back, with only the help of retired coach, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker).
The main draw to the film is Gyllenhaal’s standout performance, and his exceptional commitment to the role physically. Undergoing a dramatic transformation by packing on serious muscle, he not only plays the part, but also looks the part of a serious pro-fighter. Bruised, tattooed and bulked, Gyllenhaal delivers a solid performance, adding layers of depth to an at times dim fighting machine. The only real flaw lies more in the dialogue, which has Hope randomly spouting thick lines of slang every now and then, which feels wholly unnatural and more like scheduled reminders that the character is from the streets.
Whitaker (The Butler) practically slips into his role with complete ease, not needing to do much to fill his part as the wise but tough mentor, who helps Hope fight with more than just anger. McAdams (Aloha) is perfectly cast as well, walking the line between the wife concerned for her husband’s safety, and his manager that has become accustomed to their affluent lifestyle. Laurence (Lamb) is a real delight as the bubbly and innocent Leila, having a nice rapport with both her screen parents, although doesn’t get to do much more than react to Gyllenhaal’s character or be used as mainly a plot device later in the film. Naomie Harris (Skyfall) is practically relegated to the sidelines as the caring social worker, and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson’s (Escape Plan) acting is essentially based solely on wearing a fedora while always seeming shady.
The film’s main downfall is its reliance on genre clichés while constantly struggling to be something more. All the expected boxing moments occur, from the training montage to the climax fight against the evil adversary, but it’s truly Gyllenhaal that raises the film beyond a mediocre sports film to an entertaining drama. With such a terrific performance it’s easy to ignore what might have otherwise been glaringly obvious flaws.