Movie review: Both Gyllenhaal, audience take beating in "Southpaw"

Melissa Starker, Columbus Alive

In "Southpaw," Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a heavily tattooed boxer with the thematically loaded name of Will Hope. A light heavyweight champion, Will has remained undefeated as much through his ability to keep standing after a brutal beating as through his way with a punch.

But ironically, the story surrounding him is so weak and creaky that even a simple examination causes it to collapse. And Will's not the only one to get pummeled.

The film opens by focusing on the elaborate application of gauze and tape to Will's hands before his latest title defense, a scene that ultimately highlights how he's otherwise totally exposed. He eggs on his opponent to hit more and harder, and the other fighter accommodates, but Will triumphs by knockout.

Ringside color commentary informs us of Will's humble beginnings in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage, where he learned to fight and found the love of his life, fellow orphan Maureen (Rachel McAdams). From there we get a glimpse of the sweet life they've built together: a big house, expensive cars and a smart, loving daughter named Leila (Oona Laurence). Then, thanks to Will's temper and the goading of a new challenger to his title (Miguel Gomez), it all goes to hell.

Getting into the details would involve some major spoilage. But essentially, what plays out is a minor riff on the "wrestling picture" formula immortalized in the Coen brothers' classic Barton Fink, with some extra helpings of individual misery. The speed and breadth of the troubles that overtake Will's life are enough to leave the audience feeling punch-drunk. It's not pleasant, but to be fair to the filmmakers, it is an ideal state for swallowing the story's implausibility.

Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) are only too willing to not just pile misfortune on the muscular shoulders of their hero, but to let the actor playing him compensate for the narrative weaknesses. Gyllenhaal gets some support from Forest Whitaker as his new trainer and from 50 Cent as a slicker, more dapper Don King type. But for the most part, he's the one thing on screen that's reliably compelling.


Opens Friday

2 stars out of 4