A great actor can elevate a script beyond its limitations and provide audiences with a compelling performance in spite of limitations on the written page.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who narrowly missed out on an Academy Award nomination with a masterful performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler,” shines yet again in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama “Southpaw,” a film that won’t win any awards, but offers much of the same quality as future Oscar nominees.
A large reason is that there’s almost nothing new or inventive in writer Kurt Sutter’s script, which goes from Point A to Point B to Point C in a very predictable and linear format. It’s as if Sutter wrote down every single boxing movie trope he could think of and then crammed it all into one film.
The fact that Gyllenhaal is able to achieve the depth of character in boxing champ Billy “The Great” Hope is a testament to his acting prowess, nothing else. Having a white lead actor play a character called “The Great” Hope should tell audiences everything they need to know about Sutter’s lackluster screenplay.
Forest Whitaker does yeoman’s work as Hope’s reluctant trainer/mentor, while the underrated Rachel McAdams gives a tremendous performance in a limited role as Hope’s wife who meets a tragic end early in the film, setting up Hope’s freefall and subsequent comeback storylines.
The remainder of the film’s secondary characters — Naomie Harris as a social worker, Miguel Gomez as rival fighter “Magic” Escobar and especially Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as a generically evil boxing promoter — just don’t hold up in comparison to McAdams and Whitaker, let alone Gyllenhaal.
Where “Southpaw” works best cinematically is in the gripping boxing sequences, where Gyllenhaal’s physical and emotional transformation is matched by compelling cinematography from Mauro Fiore and direction by Fuqua.
Boxing movies live and die by their in-ring exploits and “Southpaw” holds up well against the competition.
On the whole, however, the film lacks enough support from the secondary actors or the script to elevate Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance into must-see category in a good, not great boxing drama.