JAKE Gyllenhaal transforms into a professional light heavyweight boxing champion in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, which despite a solid performance from its lead lets itself down by venturing much too frequently into cliché territory.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope who we first see him winning the World Light Heavyweight title, followed by a look at the luxurious lifestyle that he has acquired for himself, wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
A gathering at a charity event takes an unexpected turn when a brawl between Billy and rival Miguel (Miguel Gomez) results in Maureen being shot, resulting in her death. The subsequent depression follows and after a match where Billy’s undefeated streak comes to an end, Billy headbutts the ref, resulting in him being sued and mounting debts leading to his home being foreclosed.
Adding to his downward spiral, a car accident results in him losing custody of his daughter, rendering him as riches-to-rags in a matter of screen minutes.
Forced to start from the bottom, he reluctantly accepts employment as a cleaner at a gym owned by strict coach Titus (Forest Whitaker) in exchange for being trained. With his relationship with his daughter fractured, an opportunity to get back in the ring with help from Titus spells out a possible chance for redemption.
The familiar story of a man who has everything, then loses it all in a moment of madness and spends the rest of the film trying to win it back is the basis for Southpaw and it is the lack of originality that stops from working on its own.
Scenes depicting court hearings, shady deals and dysfunctional relationships add to this viewpoint, while Billy’s first fight as a widower seems too influenced by Raging Bull and the occasional use of slow motion in the fights is unwelcome.
By venturing into cliché, the film’s segment of predictability prevents more focus being displayed alongside the few interesting aspects of the film to the point that inevitably, the story is never going to help the film with its case. As a result, it comes down to the actors to try and salvage the piece before it can drop into anything lower than what its aims are suggesting.
Gyllenhaal is impressive to watch and scenes that depict his downward spiral as he struggles to accept the death of his wife represent that he is capable of pulling off convincing emotional work. A scene where he struggles to hold back tears as he says goodnight to his daughter on the night of his wife’s funeral shows that he is an actor who, though not the greatest in the world, is often very good to see.
The unnecessary outcry that stemmed from him failing to get his first leading Oscar nomination for last year’s Nightcrawler which saw him transform into another different physical shape will likely resurge with this. Despite this being a better and somewhat suitable role, this is one that once again will not get him a nomination. He might stand a chance at getting a Golden Globe nomination but if people think he will be in the auditorium waiting for his Oscar nomination to be read out come February 28, they will be mistaken.
The best feature comes from Whitaker who arguably elevates the film in the second half with his portrayal of a firm-but-fair gym owner whose responsibility lies with helping local kids find a passion within boxing to keep them away from crime. In contrast, he might stand a chance at getting an Oscar nomination come next year in the supporting category. There is nothing concrete and five better performances may turn up by then, but if he is nominated, it will not come as a surprise.
Southpaw does contain impressive and convincing performances from Gyllenhaal and especially Whitaker, but it is the overt reliance on formula and cliché that prevents this film from impressing and ends up too familiar for its own good.