Body by Jake
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 3 min.
That the protagonist in Southpaw is a white pugilist with the last name “Hope” is an indicator of this formulaic riches-to-rags-to-redemption boxing bore.
We’re informed early on that undefeated light heavyweight champ Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) were childhood sweethearts reared in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. But while Maureen has adopted the airs and elocution of the high life, Billy hasn’t shed the ferocity of his hardscrabble upbringing and the monosyllabic mumblings of his punch-drunk present.
Nevertheless, their genuine devotion to each other persists until a hotel brawl between Billy and an upstart contender (Miguel Gomez) ends with gunfire and Maureen’s death. This triggers a downward spiral in which Billy rapidly loses his title, his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), his acquaintances, his sobriety, his home, and ultimately custody of his young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to child protective services.
Per the Boxing Movie Playbook, Billy returns to the hood to rehap in a dilapidated gym run by an aging trainer. Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), formerly a cornerman for one of Billy’s former rivals, agrees to give Billy a janitor job and retrain him from a brawler into a boxer (Rocky 3 alert). Meanwhile, Billy must curb his drinking and kowtow to the court in order to regain custody of Leila.
The plotline to Southpaw is basically The Champ meets the story of Job. There’s no moment in that isn’t predictable, starting with the film’s title foretelling the same switch in strategy during the climactic fight as the one Mickey employed in Rocky 2. Plot turns seem to occur in a vacuum, oblivious to their buildup. Billy spends half the film trying to satisfy a skeptical social worker, Angela (Naomie Harris), that he’s a fit father.Yet once Billy and Leila are reunited, their first trip is traveling to Las Vegas so a little girl—accompanied by Angela no less—can watch her dad get pummeled into a bloody pulp in the ring.
The film feels suffocating at times thanks to Fuqua’s trademark grimy palette. The supporting performances are equally uninspired, including Whitaker, who usually pushes his method approach to quirky excess.
It falls to Gyllenhaal to drag this film along as if tethered to a training tire. He traverses a range of emotions throughout the film, from Billy’s testosterone-driven in-ring persona, to the self-destructive anguish of losing his wife and child, to the gradual and reluctant humility he accepts in order to reclaim his life.
Eminem was originally slated to play Billy, and while the rapper acquitted himself well in the autobiographical 8 Mile, this film’s director and material isn’t as self-sustaining. Gyllenhaal nearly gives a knockout performance in Southpaw. Unfortunately, it feels like the actor is fighting in a lower weight class.