REVIEW: Southpaw

15 08 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal trained hard to get ripped and toned for his role as boxer Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” yet the physical transformation may not represent most impressive facet of his performance.  Underneath the chiseled six-pack of abs and behind the battered face does not necessarily lie the spirit of a champion.  In fact, Hope most resembles a pitbull backed into the corner of a cage.

Gyllenhaal makes the truly courageous choice not to play his character with some kind of rough-hewn heart that always finds a way to break through his hardened exterior. Hope came up through the New York City foster care system, never making peace with his parents before they passed and ending up incarcerated more than once.  To boot, he lacks some basic literacy skills (he’s unable to spell the word “incarcerted” with his daughter) and needs the firm support system provided by his wife, Rachel McAdam’s Maureen, to make even the most common-sense of decisions.

In Gyllenhaal’s hands, Hope becomes borderline unsympathetic.  If his character were dropped into the self-destructive drug addict role that Christian Bale played in “The Fighter,” we might not root for him.  Plenty of times in “Southpaw,” I questioned whether my desire to see him triumph came simply from the fact that writer Kurt Sutter made this character the protagonist.

When tragedy hits Hope, we feel pain not because we watch a good man drawn into a maelstrom of grief and anguish.  We feel pain because Gyllenhaal makes sure we know that this a person clearly ill-equipped to come to terms with the enormity of his wealth, power, and standing. A 43-0 record in the ring has not transformed Hope in any way. He’s still the same kid from the shelters who did not have the smarts to stay out of trouble.

Southpaw

In many ways, this creative choice by Gyllenhaal saves “Southpaw” from succumbing to a clichéd comeback narrative.  Hope cannot return to his old habits to get another shot at glory; he has to completely rethink his approach to the sport.  With the help of a new trainer, Forest Whitaker’s Tick Wills, Hope completely remakes himself into a boxer who relies on his wits rather than this anger to knock out an opponent.

It does prove, ultimately, rather moving to watch Gyllenhaal slowly transform again before our eyes. We did not get to watch his body sculpt to this shape (though many probably wish they could), but we do get to see subtle shifts in behavior and personality that make him a better fighter and father.  It’s a reminder that sometimes rehabilitation must come from external rather than internal forces, and other people are tremendous resources for helping us grow into the people we are expected to be. B / 2halfstars

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