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Jake Gyllenhaal bears the scars of his latest fight in Southpaw.

The critical narrative has now hardened around Jake Gyllenhaal. It goes like this: After a misguided period when the actor tried to be an A-list leading man, the financial and critical flops of The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (plus him losing out on the role of Spider-Man when it looked like Tobey Maguire might drop out) made him say, “Screw it. I’m doing what I want.” The result has been his current spate of terrific performances, in End of Watch, Prisoners, Nightcrawler, and now the boxing drama Southpaw.

This actually isn’t true, though it is nice and tidy. The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia were naked bids for mainstream stardom, and they weren’t good, but they came six years apart. In between them, Gyllenhaal played smooth-talking gay cowboy Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain, and it’s easy to forget now what a major risk that was for his career back then. Then there came a stretch that involved Proof, Jarhead, Zodiac, Rendition, and Brothers, which were all prestige pictures designed to get him Oscar nods and which, except for David Fincher’s true-crime flick, were all frightfully dull. The more truthful story is that the 34-year-old actor has now grown more comfortable with the darker side of his personality, which he showed as early as 2001 in Donnie Darko. Oh, he can still turn on the puppy-dog charm, which he did as recently as in Love & Other Drugs, and he has a goofy sense of humor that he hasn’t explored yet — remember his drag appearance on Saturday Night Live singing a song from Dreamgirls? Still, he’s definitely grown into himself as he ditched the nice-guy hero parts.

In Southpaw, he plays Billy Hope, the light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world. An orphan from a hardscrabble upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen, Billy is a boiling rage case who wins fights by absorbing fearful beatings before pounding his opponents into unconsciousness. As predictably as everything else that happens in this movie, Billy’s temper causes his downfall. Shooting breaks out when he initiates a charity gala brawl with a mouthy rival boxer (Miguel Gómez), and Billy’s beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) catches a stray bullet and dies horribly in his arms. Billy loses his title, his unbeaten record, his reputation, his shady fight manager (50 Cent), and his custody of his young daughter (Oona Laurence).

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Southpaw is in the hands of Antoine Fuqua, a director whose punishingly simplistic sense of drama is about as subtle as a right cross to the jaw. We know that Billy is on his way back when he goes to work out with an old trainer named Tick, who teaches him to fight left-handed and play defense every once in a while. This is partly because Tick is played by Forest Whitaker but mostly because his gym looks like crap. In Hollywood, the best boxing trainers work out of dingy gyms that are falling apart, just the same way the best scientists work in cluttered basements at home. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter (who created TV’s Sons of Anarchy) at least introduces a few bits showing us Billy already suffering the ill effects of the many head shots that he has taken. He can’t break the long-established mold for these movies, though. The movie climaxes with Billy gaining a match with the same boxer who caused Maureen’s death, and Sutter doesn’t have the wit to imagine what sort of unholy public relations frenzy would break out in that instance. To be fair, I can’t imagine that, either. Then again, I’m not the one being paid to. This movie is so conventional, it could have been made in 1935.

Whitaker does get a magnificent monologue after one of the boys Tick is tutoring gets killed. Despite that, the show belongs to Gyllenhaal, who looks every inch the part of an all-destroying fighting machine. He passes the Double Feature Test — see his performance here next to his turn as an emaciated psychopath in last fall’s Nightcrawler, and you’ll be amazed that you’re watching the same actor. His performance goes well beyond mechanics, too. Just check out the scene after Maureen’s death when he goes home, buries his face in their mattress, and howls out his grief. He gives Southpaw an emotional depth that it doesn’t begin to merit. He deserved better than this vehicle. So did we.

 

[box_info]Southpaw
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Kurt Sutter. Rated R.[/box_info]

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