“Southpaw,” a boxing movie with a theme of redemption, is redeemed by the performances of its two main actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker.
Its script, by Kurt Sutter, is a compendium of every boxing movie cliché imaginable. Obviously a product of the Stacked Deck school of screenwriting, Sutter burdens hardscrabble hero Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) with a string of travails that would make Job weep.
A champion light heavyweight with a 43-0 record, a humongous mansion, a loving wife (Rachel McAdams) and a cute-as-button young daughter (Oona Laurence) at the start, he loses every last thing he values — title, mansion, money, family, friends — before the picture is a quarter over. And then, down and out, battered and grieving, he must somehow climb out of his slough of despond toward redemption. Which of course, must come in the ring with a climactic and superbloody prize fight.
What we have here, in other words, is hokum. But the strength of the performances of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker elevate it to quality hokum.
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Whitaker’s character, a hard-nosed boxing coach named Tick Willis who owns a crummy inner-city gym, doesn’t show up until around a third of the way through the movie, and until then Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) slather on the melodrama with a trowel.
But in the midst of it all, Gyllenhaal keeps things interesting with a many-shaded portrait of despair. He brings so much conviction to his portrayal of Billy’s anguish — his speech slurred, his eyes haunted — that it’s almost possible to overlook the triteness of the dialogue and the situations.
And then Whitaker enters the picture, and “Southpaw” turns into a duet of fine acting. In dark places — a low-rent bar, the nighttime gym — Tick becomes mentor and trainer, pinpointing Billy’s greatest weakness, his hair-trigger temper, and instructs him how to fight with his brain, rather than his usual method of “stopping punches with your face.” Billy struggles to learn and reform, and Gyllenhaal makes that internalized struggle achingly palpable.
The final bout, a jolting, bloodstained catharsis, is red meat for fight-movie fans, but it’s the acting that precedes it that is the real strength of “Southpaw.”
☆☆☆out of 5
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence and Rachel McAdams.
Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Running time: 2:04.
Rated: R, for language throughout and violence.