Based on the publicity photos alone the last person you’d ever want to step into a boxing ring with would be Southpaw’s star Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s by no means the first actor to go through a physical transformation for a role but given his emaciated look in last year’s Nightcrawler it is quite a staggering change. That role should have earned him more accolades than it did and while Southpaw is unlikely to see him nominated for awards he continues to be one of Hollywood’s most interesting and versatile actors. With this in mind Southpaw doesn’t always deliver a knockout punch but Gyllenhaal is prize fighter throughout.
The plot is relatively straightforward but refreshingly, unlike many mainstream films, takes its time to really settle into the world of boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhall). This kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who grew up in ‘the system’ is now a World Champion boxer. But he’s nothing without the love of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). When tragedy strikes Maureen is taken from him and Billy’s life spirals out of control to the point where he is no longer trusted to look after his daughter. Desperate and down on his luck Billy turns to dive-gym trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him get back in the ring.
Southpaw certainly knows how to adhere to sports movie clichés, there’s montages, underdogs and of course the grand-standing, fist-pumping finale. In many ways it ticks boxes, ones that if it didn’t many audience members would feel cheated. But by allowing us to live in Billy’s ideal world for longer than most films in the opening act we form a closer bond with than we would otherwise.
The result of this is, even at his most self-destructive, you root for him. This is in no small part to Gyllenhaal’s endearing performance. The rage he presents earlier on is intimidating but his affections for his family before seeing him reduced to nothing offers a hook from which it is hard to wriggle free.
You can see the punches a mile off but Southpaw remains an enjoyable, genuinely emotional film thanks to Gyllenhaal, and in particular his on-screen chemistry with Laurence. More than lasting till the final bell Southpaw never strays from the predictable but you probably won’t want it to.