For a long time Southpaw was developed to be rapper Eminem’s follow-up role from 8 Mile. Writer Kurt Sutter wanted to use the boxing metaphor for Eminem’s own struggles to get his life back on track. But with the music industry pulling the rapper away from the silver screen Jake Gyllenhaal stepped in to the ring to take his place.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the product of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and a champion prizefighter who is happy to take the hits as long as he lands the killer blow. Supported by his adoring wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) Billy doesn’t always make the right decisions but knows that Maureen will. But when his anger management issues rear their head outside of the ring Billy loses everything; his wife, his home, his money and even his daughter who is put into to child protection. With Billy seemingly down for the count he turns to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him get back what he’s lost.
Given how great Eminem was in 8 Mile it is hard not to wonder what could have been with Southpaw. The thought of the feisty rapper using less words and lots of fists is an interesting proposition. But the truth is that one of the strongest elements going for Southpaw is the presence of Gyllenhaal. His performance is a brilliant balance of arrogant hostility before descending into hopelessness and desperation. Billy is not always an easy character but in Gyllenhaal’s hands it’s impossible not to root for him. It’s testament to Gyllenhaal who has made a conscious decision to steer clear of the more mainstream cinema projects presumably coming his way to seek out character based projects that he is able to metamorphosise into. Watching Southpaw and last year’s stunning Nightcrawler as a double feature will demonstrate just what a versatile actor he is.
For the most part though Southpaw feels a little too contrived to truly hook you in. Stutter’s script misses key emotional beats and, despite a long running time, often feels rushed. Whitaker’s storyline in particular feels like it has had at least two subplots removed in order to streamline Billy’s story. One minute he doesn’t drink the next he does, one minute he’s dead set against Billy stepping back in the ring the next he’s training him to do just that.
There are of course no end of sports movie clichés; training montages, the loved ones looking on in horror as their star man takes a battering and an ending that you’ll probably see coming a mile away. Despite being predictable though these things do aid in making for a resounding ending, just not quite resounding enough to have you punching the air with glee.
Never quite a knock-out but Southpaw just about lands enough hits to last the rounds.