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  1. Life & Culture

Review: 'Southpaw' packs a violent and emotional punch

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Southpaw.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Southpaw.
Published Jul. 22, 2015

An old boxing punchline: Fighter goes 12 rounds, gets beaten to a pulp, broken nose, the works, then says: "But you should see the other guy."

Billy Hope is the other guy, eyes swollen shut, leaking blood like a meat locker, maybe a little brain damaged. He's also the undefeated light heavyweight champion in masochistic fashion, leading with his chin, taunting opponents into more punishment.

The first shot in Southpaw is Billy's raging face, recklessly setting himself up for a staggering knock-back punch. It's what Billy does to himself for the rest of Antoine Fuqua's exciting yet dramatically overstuffed movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal's transformation to Billy's brawling physique was only the beginning of how much heavy lifting Kurt Sutter's screenplay requires from him. Gyllenhaal goes full Method mumble, with Billy's anger mismanagement providing numerous outburst opportunities. It's an impressive, possibly award-worthy performance, elevating bloat like Denzel Washington's turn in Fuqua's Training Day.

In a quest to transcend boxing movie cliches, Southpaw leaves no obstacle to happiness behind, from the death of Billy's wife to a daughter wishing it had been him. Emotional blows are occasionally below the belt, when the fight is already in the movie's favor.

For the most part, however, Southpaw is a terrific boxing movie, with choreographed violence emphasizing the sport's speed rather than its poetry in slow motion. That opening shot of Billy's face ignites a fight sequence unmatched in recent memory, at once frenzied and controlled for our gasping pleasure. Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore don't sacrifice clarity for action, staying in tight and steady as a referee, all the way to the inevitable Big Fight.

Sutter's plot should be so inspired getting the audience there. Southpaw isn't shy about invoking boxer movie dogma; the brash challenger (Miguel Gomez), the shifty promoter (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, not bad), the luxurious lifestyle of a champion. The training montages with a crusty trainer (Forest Whitaker, strong and long-winded sometimes).

Then there are the emotional sucker punches, intended solely to add tears to the blood and sweat. Rachel McAdams is really good as Billy's supportive wife, Maureen, until a violent act provoked by Gomez's challenger takes her out of the picture. (No spoiler; it's there in the oversharing trailer.)

Billy's spiral is rapid, losing his home, career and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to child services, a subplot that could be trimmed by a supervised visit or two. The comeback is slow, starting with grim choices and detouring through a neighborhood gym where Whitaker's role adds a few more layers of pathos and regret. Southpaw doesn't know when to quit when Billy's behind enough.

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Inside the ring, though, Southpaw is a pulse racer from bell to bell, with Gyllenhaal and Gomez throwing and taking more punches than humanly possible, feigning everything's on the line in convincing fashion that left Monday's audience cheering. The kind of movie Mayweather and Pacquiao should've watched.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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