Southpaw may look like a rental, but you should see it in theatres. Yes, it relies way too heavily on clichés, but seeing Jake Gyllenhaal transform into Billy Hope is worth the price of admission. It’s joy to see Rachel McAdams in this sexy, supportive part, too. But this is a role only Jake could play. Not only did Jake spend, by his own account, five and a half months to become a real boxer who could believably hold his own in the ring, but he also has to deliver some emotional, dark beats.
Jake’s Billy Hope starts from nothing. Growing up on the streets and vaguely uneducated, he meets his future wife Maureen (Rachel) at an orphanage when they were 12. Together, they harness his raw athleticism into a 43-0 professional boxing career, with lavish HBO / Pay Per View contracts. They create their own empire as a family and as devoted parents to their daughter Leila. Insert the New Jersey McMansion, cute mother-daughter-father bonding moments, and showering their entourage with lavish Cartier watches scenes here.
Yet, as we see in the first trailer, this “bliss” can’t last for long. At a charity benefit, the unthinkable happens, and Maureen is shot after Billy’s taunted by a rival. Soon, he loses everything…. and has to start from scratch. His daughter, who never knew his hardships, is now in “the system,” and he has to learn how to fight for his career, and his life, all over again. He’s “nothing” without Rachel’s Maureen, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Yes, you’ve seen this story before. Predictable and schlocky, Southpaw still packs a mighty punch. Expect lots of writing clichés like that in the movie. Does Jake’s on-screen daughter need to have him quiz her on how to spell “hopelessness” after they’ve lost it all? No. Does his name HAVE to be “Billy Hope”? No. But it’ll still make you cry…. Or get close.
And when Jake fights – you buy it. You see the sweat. You see the manic focus, the redness on his back, and some backne. And when he hugs his daughter, or kisses his wife, you feel all that too. It’s real and authentic, and he truly commits to the part. He did this in Nightcrawler too, End of Watch, and tons of other movies. But here it’s different. Nightcrawler was just full-on weirdo Jake. It was hard for audiences to relate to, which is perhaps why he didn’t get an Oscar nod – he looked too weird, the story was so dark, and it was just too extreme for some tastes. But a boxing movie is much more conventional, and gives him a chance to show his full range, not just his Donnie Darko avant-garde flash.
Boxing movies are a known “thing” in Hollywood. Rocky, Cinderella Man, Warrior, The Fighter – they all attract awards attention and have commercial appeal too. It’s hard to hate a comeback story… or to deny the power of a rags-to-riches trope.
Unfortunately, Southpaw’s not as good as those films… but Jake’s better than Sly Stallone, Russell Crowe, Tom Hardy and Marky Mark. He sells Billy’s struggle better than they did with their respective characters, too.
As does Rachel. She’s only in the movie briefly as his Jenny-from-the-Block-only-her-name-is-Maureen, but aside from her courtside bandage dresses, massive hoop earrings and thongs (!), she’s the heart of the family. You get it. You get her and Jake together, and you get why she’s in his corner. Plus, with strong supportive performances from Forest Whitaker (Forest Whitaker as comic relief – has this happened since Phenomenon? Why doesn’t this happen more?!), 50 Cent (who knew?) and my girl Naomie Harris, there’s more than enough reason to buy a ticket.
Expect to cry, and to watch it on cable or Netflix for years to come…but it doesn’t deserve any room in your Top 10 of 2015 lists. As for the Oscar nom talk? Jake’s fought for his spot to be part of the conversation.