“Southpaw” finds Jake Gyllenhaal giving another performance of intense ferocity, committing to the sort of full-on character immersion that is these days most commonly associated with someone like Christian Bale or Cate Blanchett.
This new picture, a boxing drama from Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), serves as further evidence that Gyllenhaal is carving out his own place in the pantheon. After being unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination as the reptilian freelance videographer at the center of last year’s “Nightcrawler,” and more generally never quite getting the acclaim he deserves, any chance to reaffirm the actor’s excellence is a welcome one.
He’s a hulking brute as world champion fighter Billy Hope in this picture, with a body sculpted of steel and the emotional composure and intelligence of a wounded animal. There’s a definite debt to a range of cinematic pugilist influences informing the performance, especially Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta, though the character and the movie’s instincts are ultimately much softer and more sentimental than anything approaching “Raging Bull.”
The movie finds Hope spiraling precipitously downward after his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is shot dead amid a hotel lobby brawl and their daughter (Oona Laurence) is removed by child services. Fuqua, working from a script by Kurt Sutter, bungles Maureen’s death scene to such an extent that it’s hard to tell exactly how any of it happened. But he is otherwise at his best during these dark scenes, in which the protagonist is given the space to grow increasingly unhinged.
The movie has little time to really expand on the premise, though, because it has all sorts of conventional redemption beats to hit. These include training sessions with an irascible grump (Forest Whitaker, terrific as usual) who runs a Harlem gym and all the other familiar touches as our hero works his way back into the good graces of the sport and in the eyes of his neglected daughter.
“Southpaw” is spectacularly conventional but there’s plenty to recommend, especially in the abundance of small character moments that give shape and texture to these people. The filmmaker is a notable stylist, a skilled purveyor of urban excess, but his worst instincts kick in far too often. We don’t need low-angle shots of a wild-eyed Gyllenhaal scored to Eminem screaming, “I am phenomenal!” to get the point.