** ½ out of ****
Southpaw is a by-the-numbers underdog sports drama. We've seen it all before, but the film is anchored by excellent performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker.
Junior middleweight boxing champ Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is living the dream, but in no time his world is turned upside down. His beloved wife (Rachel McAdams) is tragically killed and child protective services has taken away his daughter (Oona Laurence). To top that off, thanks to shady dealing by his snake of a manager (Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson), Billy is flat broke. His chance at redemption is with Tick Willis (Whitaker), a former boxer turned trainer in the inner city.
Gyllenhaal's performance is dead-on as this lunkhead who is quick to anger because he doesn't have the emotional tools to deal with sadness and loss. So, he acts out getting himself into more trouble.
Whitaker gives a sturdy performance as a guy who has been through it all. The best scenes here aren't the boxing scenes but the quiet talks between the characters played by Gyllenhaal and Whitaker, and I wish the movie had more of these moments between the two men.
Of Course this being a boxing story of redemption there is a big, climactic boxing match between Billy and an arrogant, younger and unethical villain. That's fine and I was expecting it. Movies like this need that emotional release after watching the protagonist struggling through the previous hour-and-a-half. So, the big match at the end is reasonably exciting, but never quite goes the distance because director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) allows his stylistic flourishes to get in the way, lessening the emotional impact. Allowing the fight play out in all its rawness, I think, would have had the audience cheering by the final round.