You don’t just taste the punches in “Southpaw;” you eat them. If I told you this is the most violently bestial fight movie I have ever seen, I would be setting you up for a different movie. You might expect the slow motion blood-letting of “Raging Bull” ramped up to Miike Takeshi level, but that’s not where director Antoine Fuqua wants to take you. He wants to make you flinch when that red glove comes sailing into your face, and to check the cuts on your eye after it hits you. This is visceral film-making at its most intimate, and when we in the audience get hurt, we want to hit back. So we are right there with light heavyweight Billy Hope from the first punch to the last.
However impressive Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro might have been in their punch drunk roles, there was always the intelligence of the actor behind each bestial gesture. Not so with Jake Gyllenhaal as Hope, who doesn’t have a brain in his head. His performance is all suffering and guilt, not reflective guilt, just painful guilt, the kind that feels like you are walking around with your head in a meat-grinder. This might finally be the performance that wins Gyllenhaal the Oscar he has deserved on so many previous occasions. Fuqua, who netted Denzel Washington an Oscar for “Training Day,” gets memorable performances from his entire cast, which includes that sorry ass, no acting motherfucker Curtis Jackson, AKA that sorry ass, no rapping motherfucker 50 Cent.
One of the things Fuqua does best is show us the protagonist from the points of view of several characters. We feel the hurt of that first fight on the face of Hope’s wife, played by Rachel McAdams. Every time he takes a hit, we in the audience experience the severity of the blow by McAdam’s reaction to it. As Hope declines further into a bestial existence, it is through the attitudes of those who sit in judgement on him that we see how far gone he is. And when he climbs back up the ladder to recover his humanity, we do not see him getting better from his own perspective, but from the points of view of those who have earlier condemned him. Hope himself is a pure energy force over which he has scant control. And to his trainer Tick Wills, played to perfection by Forest Whitaker, the art of boxing is the control and application of such energy.