Review: Jake Gyllenhaal tries to avoid a melodramatic uppercut in ‘Southpaw’

Nothing is more frustrating than watching great actors busting their balls in a film that can”t live up to their individual performances.  It”s a too common occurrence in Hollywood these days and is a perfect description of Antoine Fuqua's latest thriller, “Southpaw.”

The first in a slew of boxing films to hit theaters over the next year, “Southpaw” finds a ripped Jake Gyllenhaal playing Billy Hope (yep, that”s his actual name), a cocky champion boxer who seemingly has it all.  There is the beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who tames his inner demons, the huge mansion in the New York City suburbs and a wonderful daughter (Tony Award winner Oona Laurence) he simply adores.  Clearly, it won't last long.

A few nights after winning his latest bout, Hope”s life is turned upside down when Maureen is accidentally killed during a post-awards reception brawl. Before you know it, Hope has become a raging alcoholic losing his entire fortune, his home and custody of his daughter to the state. His life falls apart so fast even daytime soap opera writers will raise their eyebrows in astonishment.   At absolute rock bottom, he shows up at the gym of former pro-trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) and after he takes the job of a janitor, well, you can figure out what happens from there.

Why Hope deserves any of this or needs a redemptive arc must simply be melodramatic entertainment to soothe the soul. That would be fine if it transcended the genre, but the audience isn”t that lucky.  Screenwriter Kurt Sutter ‘s take on the “Rocky” myth dangerously plays with the viewer”s suspension of disbelief for a tale so rich with clichés you”ll be able to figure out the next scene before the current one has barely started.  Thankfully, no one told Gyllenhaal this was a role worth phoning in.

The 34-year-old actor”s physical transformation from that of a scrawny wannabe news reporter in “Nightcrawler” to a legitimate pro boxer in such a short period of time is remarkable. You don”t necessarily believe he”s a championship level fighter, but Gyllenhaal tries his best to breathe life into a character that makes some strange life decisions when things don”t go his way.

Whitaker, as he is prone to do, takes an underwritten role and gives it enough emotional gravitas so that allows you to justify why Willis would risk his reputation to help Hope.   As for the rest of the cast, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is painfully transparent as Hope”s shady business manager and Naomie Harris attempts to bring some grounded realism to Alice”s Social Services counselor.  Frustratingly, McAdams and Gyllenhaal have great chemistry together that the movie immediately misses when she”s off screen.  And, for the most part, Laurence is talented enough to avoid the familiar cringe-inducing rhythms common with most young actors.

Script issues aside, the stylish Fuqua, who actually seems restrained here compared to his last film, “The Equalizer,” still has a shot to at least tug on the heartstrings in the film”s climactic act.  There are no spoilers here. This is a boxing movie and the audience is expecting that one big fight at the end that gives Hope a shot at revenge and, more importantly, getting his daughter back.  If it”s cinematically powerful enough you might just forgive all of the film”s other flaws.  Bizarrely, Fuqua decides to use HBO”s ringside announcing team of Jim Lampley and former champ Roy Jones, Jr. to  provide play by play for the entire fight.  The decision  sucks the life out of the movie”s last act as Lampley and Jones, Jr.”s commentary tells the audience exactly what they are already watching round by round by round.  It”s  a gutsy choice by Fuqua, but it also brings the cinematic experience to a screeching halt as you”re suddenly viewing a “staged” televised boxing match.

Approaching a boxing film from a different perspective is a noble creative endeavor. Unfortunately, “Southpaw” descends into a tedious exercise of formulaic filmmaking that leaves you feeling worse for Gyllenhaal and Whitaker than the characters they play on screen. 

“Southpaw” opens nationwide on Friday.