[Screen It]


(2015) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker) (R)

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Drama: Following an unexpected family tragedy, a professional boxer tries to get his life and career back on track.
Billy Hope (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) is the light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world, sporting a 43-0 record, all of which is remarkable considering his start at life and growing up in an orphanage. That's where he met fellow orphan and his future wife, Maureen (RACHEL McADAMS), with whom he has an adoring young daughter, Leila (OONA LAURENCE). While Billy's manager, Jordan Mains (50 CENT), has no problems getting opponents lined up to take on the champ, Miguel Escobar (MIGUEL GOMEZ) is the one who's biting the most at the bit. He's always trying to antagonize Billy, and during one such confrontation, a fight breaks out and Maureen is accidentally shot and dies in Billy's arms.

Distraught and with his finances dwindling, Billy doesn't know how to cope with this massive change in his life. That includes in the ring where his first fight since her death results in him taking a pummeling and then head-butting the referee for calling the fight, all of which results in a one-year suspension from the sport. Considering that and other questionable behavior, the state takes custody of Leila, sending Billy into more of a spiral.

With his mansion and other possessions gone, and realizing he's going to lose his daughter if he doesn't get his act together, Billy turns to local boxing trainer Titus "Tick" Wills (FOREST WHITAKER). Tick initially wants nothing to do with Billy, especially since he doesn't train pro fighters anymore, but he eventually has a change of heart. Giving the fighter a new set of rules to live by, Tick attempts to retrain Billy's fighting style, all while the former champ hopes to change enough in order to regain custody of his progressively estranged daughter.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Notwithstanding the recent Floyd Mayweather - Manny Pacquaio bout that raked in millions of dollars for each fighter, the promoters and all things related to pay per view TV events, boxing clearly isn't what it used to be. When I was growing up (in the era of Ali, Frazier, Foreman and such), pretty much everyone knew the name of the then current heavyweight champion of the world. Nowadays, I'd wager that fewer than ten percent of the populace could pick the current champ out of a lineup.

Nonetheless, Hollywood and other movie producing entities continue to make movies about the sport and those who participate in it. But let's be honest here, just about every variation of this sort of tale, whether it revolves around the current champ or a contender, has already been told, sometimes countless times.

Undeterred by that, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter has jumped into the ring with director Antoine Fuqua ("The Equalizer," "Training Day") to bring us "Southpaw." While Fuqua's presence would almost make one believe Denzel Washington would automatically come along for the ride, that actor already did the boxer thing in "The Hurricane."

Thus, we get the next most likely candidate, Jake Gyllenhaal. I jest, of course, since the last time we saw the talented actor he was scrawny and wiry playing the deranged amateur TV news gatherer in "Nightcrawler."

Since most such genre pics don't feature pugilists in the welterweight division, the thespian likely didn't seem the right physical choice to play the light heavyweight champion of the world. Like Christian Bale before him, however, Gyllenhaal reversed the weight loss, put back on the reported thirty pounds he lost for the last role, and added another fifteen for good measure.

The result is he's quite visibly believable in the part, and his acting skills thrown on top of that is what helps this flick go the distance. Sutter's script already has Billy Hope as the longstanding, undefeated champion of the world, with a loving but concerned wife (Rachel McAdams) at his side and a young daughter (Oona Laurence) who doesn't get to watch the fights but has a routine of counting the cuts, abrasions and such his face sports after each bout.

Some of that stems from his fighting style of leading with his head which apparently can be attributed to his rough and tumble childhood. While he now lives in the finest mansion boxing money can buy, he grew up in an orphanage and still has an edgy and gritty demeanor about him. His manager (50 Cent) likes that about him as it means more bouts and thus more money, but his wife is worried he's going to be punch drunk in short order and thus wants him to cut back, although she has no problem dissing a vocal contender (Miguel Gomez) at a press conference.

Tragedy then strikes (and it hits hard on an emotional scale considering the buildup and performances before that), and the fighter endures a fall from grace. While some of that happens too quickly and severely to be fully credible (losing ALL of his possessions, not to mention custody of his daughter), it's designed to allow for the second half or so of the film to focus on the comeback. And that's when Forrest Whitaker comes into the picture as a veteran trainer who initially wants nothing to do with the now poisonous fighter, but eventually changes his way. All of which, natch, leads up to the big bout at the end.

We've seen it all before, and notwithstanding the film's significant loss once McAdams' character leaves the building, all involved do enough to keep the flick on its feet through the final round and reel. With kudos to Gyllenhaal for delivering another superb performance, "Southpaw" might be just another boxing flick in a long line of such contenders, but it thankfully doesn't pull any of its punches and thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 9, 2015 / Posted July 24, 2015

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