Never let it be said that Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t a versatile actor. Less than a year after playing a creepy sociopath in the superb Nightcrawler, Mr Gyllenhaal returns to our screens in another impressive drama; Southpaw, where he takes on the role of a heavyweight boxer living through the toughest part of his life and career.
A lot of the pre-press for Southpaw focused on Gyllenhaal’s impressive body transformation. Gone is the frail, sunken-eyed form that we met in Nightcrawler, replaced with a suitably gigantic and musclebound frame. Indeed, the change in Gyllenhaal’s physique is akin to that which we saw Christian Bale achieve when he went from The Machinist to Batman Begins (where he was allegedly told to lose some muscle as he looked more like Superman than Batman). Coincidentally enough, this new ‘Super-Gyllenhaal‘ looks like the monstrous offspring of Bale and Gerard Butler.
Of course, getting the look right isn’t worth a whole lot if you can’t produce the goods when push comes to shove. Fortunately though, Gyllenhaal’s performance packs a dramatic punch as well as a literal one. Southpaw is something of an emotional roller-coaster for his character, from the emphatic highs to the desperate lows, we get the full picture of a man driven by the two things he loves in life; his family and the sport which made him who he is.
Gyllenhaal is not alone in producing a powerhouse performance. Southpaw‘s supporting cast is littered with some serious actors. Between Rachel McAdams as his long-suffering wife and the always welcome Forest Whitaker as a grumpy boxing coach, Gyllenhaal finds himself in good company. Special praise must also go to Oona Laurence who plays out a torturous love/hate relationship with her father whom she loves deeply but despises at the same time due to consistent his inability to get his life together. Based on what we see in Southpaw, there is a big future ahead of Miss Laurence.
While Southpaw does have a lot going for it, it does have a few flaws which hold it back from being an exceptional film. Part of Gyllenhaal’s character is that he is a softly spoken type who is uncomfortable speaking in public, which results in some of his lines coming across as quite mumbly and hard to decipher. This trait is shared by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson who plays a greasy fight promoter who is central to the plot. Although, in his case, it doesn’t seem to be a conscious choice – he’s simply a poor actor who looks the part but never feels convincing (It’s a bit of mystery as to how he keeps landing important roles in big films).
Southpaw is a bit of a ‘boxing movie by numbers’ story that is riddled with clichés. Everything from the past his prime boxer returning from the shadows for one last big fight against a young pretender to the team up with a veteran coach who missed out on his shot at the big time many moons ago is present and accounted for. Fortunately though, the film is very well put together, with a solid blend of drama, humour and superbly choreographed boxing sequences (purists may find them somewhat ‘Hollywoodized’ though), so it is easy enough to sit back and enjoy the ride.
While it certainly won’t win any awards for originality, Southpaw lands most of its punches (yes, I am aware of the irony of using a cliché right after saying a film was full of clichés) and is well worth checking out for anyone who enjoys a good sports themed drama.
Try this if you like:
- Rocky Balboa (2006)
- The Fighter (2010)