The opening of Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, shot in gritty, grayed-out tones, is a grim harbinger: A fighter getting ready for the ring holds up his meaty paws for the ritualistic wrapping of gauze and tape. His gloves are slipped over the wrappings, and then they’re taped on too — but while his fists may be imprisoned, his mind has got to stay quick and free. The fighter is a scrapper from Hell’s Kitchen — he came up there, presumably in the days when it was still hellish — with the portentous name Billy Hope, and he’s played by an ornately tattooed Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s all skin, muscle, and eyes. You just know that in the course of the next few hours, great and terrible things will happen to Billy. There will be very little in-between.
After an initial, fleeting moment of triumph, the first half of Southpaw charts Billy’s rapid and painful downward spiral, initiated by one horrific incident. His looping free-fall of despair, punishing to witness, can’t end soon enough. But the rest of Southpaw — which, if you haven’t guessed, details Billy’s clawing his way back to everything that matters to him — doesn’t have enough dramatic spring to win us back. The problem isn’t just that Southpaw — which was written by Kurt Sutter, whose previous credits include episodes of The Shield and Sons of Anarchy — is predictable. Post-Shakespeare, plenty of great stories follow a basic template. But Fuqua heaps the movie’s first half with so much misery that by the time Forest Whitaker shows up as the tough-but-sensitive neighborhood trainer-sensei who’ll get the fallen Billy back on track — come on, you knew that was coming — we already feel beaten to the consistency of hamburger.
That may be more or less true of all of Fuqua’s movies — his last was The Equalizer, with Denzel Washington as a hardware-store vigilante — but many of them are still more skillfully balanced than this one is. The pummeling, of both the audience and of Billy, begins in the fight scene that follows the movie’s skillful opening. We learn immediately what kind of fighter Billy is, the tough guy who likes to prove he can take a punch. Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore shoot the match unsparingly — Billy may be sturdy, but we feel every bone-crunching blow. He’s a mess by the end, dazed and bloodied; he slumps in the dressing room, surrounded by damp red towels that used to be white, gelatinous strings of crimson saliva hanging from his mouth.
Billy’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), doesn’t like what she sees. She's a ringside goddess with a mass of blond curls, given to wearing minidresses with glitzy high-heeled gladiator sandals, but she’s anything but a heartless tootsie: She and Billy have been together for years, having grown up in the same Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. (They’re like Victorian waifs transplanted into the New York City child welfare system.) And she desperately wants him to take a break from fighting. Maureen is Billy’s lifeline, as well as the mother of the couple’s much adored daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence, who bears a striking resemblance to Miracle on 34th Street–era Natalie Wood). She protects him from fair-weather friends and assorted operators, including his manager (a slick, sleek 50 Cent). Then the worst happens, and we find out just how emotionally fragile Billy is.
Southpaw is an exhausting brutalist melodrama, but if nothing else, Fuqua always works with fine actors, and he’s got a passel of them here. McAdams is breezy and believable even in this stock protective-wife role. Naomie Harris and Rita Ora make the best of their smallish parts. Whitaker, as a milky-eyed retired pro, brings some blessedly laid-back energy to this exceedingly high-strung movie. And Gyllenhaal is good in every scene — but even he ends up wearing us down. Billy may look like he’s all muscle, but he’s really just a mass of exposed nerves: As Gyllenhaal plays him, he’s hunched and twitchy, a sculpted athlete who, deep down, is too bruised and tender to make his way in the world at large. It’s Gyllenhaal’s job to portray Billy as a walking mess, and he takes that mission very seriously — too seriously. Billy’s eyes may be hungry and haunted, but what shines through them most brightly is Gyllenhaal’s method determination. He keeps slugging through every minute of Southpaw, even after he’s already got us on the ropes.