Of all the adjectives that flitted through my head when I learned that Kurt Sutter (the creator of Sons of Anarchy and a writer on The Shield) was teaming up with Antoine Fuqua (the director of Training Day, Tears of the Sun, and Olympus Has Fallen), "dull" wasn’t one of them. And yet I couldn’t help hearing that word banging about my skull while coming out of the screening of Southpaw, a paint-by-numbers tale of loss and redemption.
Billy "The Great" Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a kid from the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, a boy who grew up in the government system and married his orphanage sweetheart, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). He’s now a world champion boxer, and we open during his latest title defense. It’s a brutal, bloody affair, Billy being the type of boxer who can only get his dander up after taking twelve punches.
Following his triumph in the ring, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a brash Colombian who suggests that the latest great white hope is a paper champ avoiding a real challenge, confronts Billy. Billy’s manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), seems to understand that Miguel poses a real challenge and tries to convince him to sign off on a three-fight deal with HBO worth $30 million.
Billy needs the cash after a melee with Miguel and his crew lands Maureen in the morgue. But his heart isn’t in the fight game any longer, and he’s taken out by a chump; during the course of the first fight in the series he winds up banned from the sport by head-butting the ref when he stops the fight. Trapped in a downward spiral, Billy loses his house, his cars, and his daughter, who is taken away by the state to be raised in the same gladiator academies that gave rise to Billy the Great.
In order to regain his self worth—and rebuild his net worth—Hope takes up with Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), the trainer of a fighter who came closest to beating Hope before his collapse. Can Willis help Hope regain his form and learn how to fight in a whole new style? We’re gonna need a montage.
If you’re familiar with the wide world of boxing movies, you’ll notice that this is basically the plot of Rocky III. Sure: Instead of a beloved trainer dying, a beloved wife dies. And there’s a bit more angst regarding Billy’s daughter than there was with Rocky Jr. Otherwise, it’s pretty similar. And about as good.
Jake Gyllenhaal is actoring very hard in Southpaw, after actoring quite hard in Prisoners and in Nightcrawler. Please don’t consider the use of the slightly sardonic "actoring"—typically used to denote someone who is overacting for critical acclaim—as a negative: I like it when Jake gets arch. Rachel McAdams, by contrast, slides right into the role of a hood rat made good who just wants her man to take a break from the brutal beatings he has endured. Hers is not a showy performance, but it still resonates. Between this, her turn on True Detective, and her work in A Most Wanted Man, McAdams has quietly evolved into one of the more versatile actresses working today.