Southpaw **1/2

The performances are great, but everything else is a letdown.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Southpaw” wastes fine performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker by relegating them to a cliché boxing story that loses its way and never recovers. If the movie were a boxer, it would start strong, rise through the ranks and surprise a few people with great potential, only to fizzle out with poor decisions and neglecting to stick to its strengths.

Writer Kurt Sutter’s (“Sons of Anarchy”) script even goes so far as to have an extended training montage leading up to the big fight in the finale, effectively squandering the good will the story earned up to that point. The last third of the movie just feels odd and off, and wreaks of studio intervention forcing Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) to provide a “Rocky” ending to a story that’s more “Raging Bull.”

For a little more than an hour, we’re hooked. Gritty, beaten, ripped and fierce boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) opens the film with a hard-fought victory, after which his wife Maureen (McAdams) asks him to take some time off before his next fight. At this point Billy is undefeated and the light heavyweight champion, and Maureen wants him around to help raise their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). His money-grubbing manager Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), however, wants him to sign a three-fight deal with HBO for $30 million. Before a final decision is made on the deal, tragedy strikes and Billy’s life is thrown into disarray. I will not reveal what the tragedy is because it struck me as a surprise that propelled the story forward in a smart direction, and the movie is more impactful if you don’t know.

As Billy struggles we’re engaged and rooting for him. Slowly but surely he gets back on his feet, but not before some tough love from boxing trainer Tick Wills (Whitaker). At this point we’re genuinely not sure how the story will play out, but when Billy is offered a title fight against the trash-talking champ (Miguel Gomez) we’ve no choice but to roll our eyes, sigh, and allow the remaining 45 minutes to play out exactly as we expect them to. 

Gyllenhaal is quickly becoming one of the most versatile actors of his generation. Whether it’s action (“Source Code”), romance (“Love & Other Drugs”), or gritty drama (“Nightcrawler”), Gyllenhaal is making a habit of morphing into an assortment of mentally and/or emotionally “off” characters, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him evolve. He smoothly shifts from hardcore to heartbreaking here, making this performance one of the finest of his career. McAdams is solid as well as the loving wife who cares more about the man than the money, and Whitaker brings just the right gravitas as a no-nonsense trainer who’s just what Billy needs.

The boxing action lacks punch. Fuqua doesn’t have anything new to bring to filming what happens inside the ring, which is inexcusable for a director of his caliber. I missed his reimagined version of “The Equalizer” with Denzel Washington, so here’s hoping Fuqua has something creative in store with his remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” which he’s shooting now with Chris Pratt.

It’s a shame to see opportunities like “Southpaw” wasted. If this is indeed the third act that Sutter and Fuqua always intended, the film never had a puncher’s chance. Gyllenhaal, McAdams, Whitaker and a little more than the first half of the movie are still good enough for a moderate recommendation, but man what could’ve been.

Did you know?
“Southpaw” features the last completed musical score for composer James Horner, who died June 22, 2015.

"Southpaw" opens 7/24. Get your tickets here!

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