Super late in posting this, so I’ll cut to the chase: Southpaw is a thoroughly entertaining, skillfully crafted, totally unnecessary adrenaline hit. There’s no good reason for you to see it, but you’ll probably have a great time if you do.
Antoine Fuqua, of Training Day and (more recently) Equalizer fame, is an expert at turning two guys beating the crap out of each other into a madly addictive spectacle. This primarily holds when one of those two guys is Denzel Washington. But what Jake Gyllenhaal lacks in the being-Denzel department, he more than makes up for in sheer commitment: his turn as hot-headed heavyweight champion Billy Hope is utterly transformative. Brokeback and Nightcrawler may have stretched him emotionally, but this is the first time I’ve seen him physically embody someone else — let alone someone capable of terrifying me. Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker are equally strong in their supporting roles, elevating everything they touch. With such unrelenting talent on both sides of the camera, it’s easy to forget you’re basically watching an extended Eminem music video.
Dig deeper than raw machismo, though, and you’re bound to come up empty. Here’s the arc in a nutshell: Billy’s aggression brings him fame, Billy’s aggression destroys his life, Billy learns to channel his aggression through a slightly smaller pinhole, Billy’s aggression (possibly?) saves the day. The film’s first act does a phenomenal job of convincing me that a particular brand of punching someone in the face for money is barbaric, and takes a dangerous emotional toll on the victor. What it totally fails to do is persuade me that alternate ways of punching someone in the face for money circumvent this. Yet by the end of the film, no one is mourning an absurd vicious cycle a la The Wrestler; there’s no palpable sadness on display. Instead, we find ourselves cheering, Rocky-style, for a father to win back his daughter via the same vice that (deservingly) lost her. And whether or not he succeeds, that’s a hollow message to stomach. Like the original 300, I liked it well enough; I just don’t think I like what that says about me.