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Jake Gyllenhaal in "Southpaw"

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw”

“SOUTHPAW”  My rating: B- 

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

Terrific acting and fight film cliches battle to a split decision in Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw,” yet further proof both of Jake Gyllenhaal’s awesome range and of the odds against making a truly original boxing picture.

Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Billy Hope, who turned a tormented childhood on the streets into a lucrative career as the light heavyweight champion of the world.

Billy is not a subtle fighter. Fueled by anger, he absorbs punch after punch until his opponent is worn out, then murders the bum. This strategy usually leaves him with a championship belt and a face like a raw Big Mac.

In contrast to his rage in the ring, Billy’s home life is actually kind of normal.  Yeah, he lives in a gated multimilliion-dollar compound outside NYC, but his relations with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), whom he has

been with since his days in juvie, and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) are practically blissful.

But happy homes don’t make for dramatic movies. The screenplay by Kurt Sutter (creator of cable’s “Sons of Anarchy”) relies on over-the-top melodrama to remove McAdam’s Maureen from the scene, setting Billy on a downward spiral that will see him lose his boxing license, his title, his wealth and his mind.

Worse of all, he loses Leila to the child welfare folks.

Mostly “Southpaw” is about how — having been reduced to a lowly and primitive state –Billy slowly comes back. His Yoda in all this is Tick (Forest Whitaker), who used to train big-time boxers but now operates a rundown gym catering to at-risk kids.

Under Tick’s tutelage Billy learns to control his anger, employ defensive tactics (apparently for the first time), and develop the patience necessary both to win in the ring and earn the trust of a dubious family court judge.

(more…)

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