by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 24, 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in 'Southpaw'
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in 'Southpaw'  (Source:The Weinstein Company)

Billy 'The Great' Hope seems to have everything. He has retained his title of World Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion, albeit after a particularly bloody match. He lives a life of sheer luxury in an enormous New York Mansion with his wife Maureen, who adores him, and their cute precious daughter Leila whom he totally dotes on. Not bad for someone that grew in a series of rough foster homes in the care of Children's Services, followed by a spell or two behind bars.

It is Maureen, his childhood sweetheart, who is the street smart one in their relationship and who calls the shots. She has ensured that they make the most of their success. Now she tells Billy that, as he is 41 years old, it's time for him to take a break from boxing and maybe quit it all together before he ends up as just another old punch-drunk boxer.

She is, however, facing an uphill struggle convincing Billy; his manager, who sees his champion simply as a cash cow, fights back with even more lucrative offers, which she insists that they reject. Then one night, after a nasty public scuffle, Maureen is accidentally fatally shot and soon after, a distraught grieving Billy without his wife to advise and protect him, is pressured into signing up for another match that will lead to his downfall and him losing everything -- including the custody of Leila.

Rock bottom, homeless and broke, he ends up in a rundown gym in the projects belonging to a once very successful trainer, Tick Willis. Billy needs a job and money to be able to get Leila back but, as Tick has sworn off training professional boxers any more, he has a tough job persuading Tick to take him on so that he can fight one last major match and win his

daughter and his dignity back.

This riches to rags (and back again) melodrama had been written very specifically for Eminem almost as a follow up from his semi-autobiographical "8 Mile." However, when he passed on the project, the producers made the inspired choice of beefing up Jake Gyllenhaal to tie on the gloves. He rises to the occasion so perfectly with a set of washboard abs and muscles that totally transform him for this very overly dramatic physical role that the Academy love handing out Awards for. His performance is every bit as good as the one he gave in 'Nightcrawler' last year, which many considered was Oscar worthy. He is directed here by Antoine Fugua (slightly heavy-handily at the beginning) and the fact that Fugua himself was once a boxer accounts for some of the stunning staging and photography of the matches that have such a glorious, intense realism to them. However, he never spares us from all the blood and gore.

The extremely predictable story is at its best when it starts to focus on Billy out of the ring, as he starts his rehabilitation with Tick (played quite brilliantly by Forrest Whittaker in his usual low-key un-showy style). Whilst we may not be surprised by any of the plot strands, Gyllenhaal imbues Billy and his bruised and tattooed body with such ferocity and earnestness that we cannot fail to become so completely invested in the outcome.

Credit, too, for Rachel McAdams as Maureen, who ensured that the short time she was on screen was powerful enough that we would also share Billy's loss when she was killed. Also to Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (who I had failed to recognize), in the crucial role of Billy's manipulative manager.

There is, however, only one real reason to see this enjoyable and entertaining movie, and that is Jake Gyllenhaal. We all knew that "Donnie Darko" would just keep getting better and better.


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Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.