Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer who hits a very hard bottom. He’s at the top of the game when the film begins, but when his head and his heart aren’t in it, he very quickly loses everything he has. He barely notices losing the cars, blinks lazily as the contents of his home are removed for auction, tries to be philosophical about the foreclosure of his multi-million dollar home, and contributes in the banishment of friends, and it’s only when they take his daughter that he breaks. His daughter is removed by child services from his custody and is sent to live in the very same system that he grew up in, and suddenly he realizes that he has to mobilize to win her back.
He turns to grizzled, reluctant trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) for help. As a boxer, Billy Hope has spent his life defending punches with is face, but that’s not enough to face down the current competition (who may also be the instrument of his undoing). Tick teaches him a more patient and thoughtful way to fight, which – lo and behold – turns out to be a great metaphor for life too.
I thought Gyllenhaal was fantastic. His performance was all meat and muscle. But the script was limp. Matt and I punched lots of holes into the story while sitting in the parking lot while Sean bought dog food, but it wasn’t just that the writing was too loose, it was also riddled with sports cliché. And we’ve already seen that movie, the boxing match as redemption. Kurt Sutter (of Sons of Anarchy fame) has nothing new to add, and director Antoine Fuqua seems to have a pretty light touch, unless they were literally going for Most Tragedies Inexplicably Overcome.
So while I believed Gyllenhaal, I wasn’t convinced by the script. It keeps pounding us relentlessly with heaps of depressing shit and it’s hard to earn any modicum of triumph after such an onslaught. It’s gritty as fuck but then it chickens out. And just looking at Gyllenhaal, how committed he is to this role, how hard he’s trying, you feel bad that everyone’s let him down and this just never gets to be the movie it maybe could have been. Sean felt that the boxing bits were pretty extraordinary, and it showed how Jake had worked his little buns off to get into such tough fighting shape (although noticeably fought right-handed save for one notable left-handed uppercut, says Sean, who was really irked by that the movie would be called Southpaw, which literally means a left-handed boxer, and then not pay attention to which hand is the dominant fighting hand. I myself did not notice such a thing because I’m sports-deficient).
I think it’s worth a rental just to watch Gyllenhaal, who is definitely on fire and making bold, interesting choices in his career. But the truth is I’d rather watch him any day in creepy Nightcrawler than watch this movie, with its bevy of eye injuries (and you may remember I’m a strict eye-phobe, which means I only watched about 40% of this movie since every time his eye bleeds, my vision goes blurry) and the physical and emotional blunt force trauma that’s just so goddamned brutal to watch.