"All I need is six weeks. I'll give fighting everything. This is about family."
So said every comeback kid in every male melodrama disguised as a boxing film, including this one. Southpaw, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and penned by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), is a straight-up, by-the-book iteration of the genre that finds its sweet spot in the charisma and actual sweat its leads invest.
The unironically named Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light middleweight champion, a brash fighter who converts his anger issues into boxing victories. His rock is his wife (Rachel McAdams), who deploys her scrappiness protecting Billy and their daughter. (The couple met as children at a "Hell's Kitchen orphanage," which may be dialogue left over from the 1915 version of this story.)
Then a tragedy causes Hope to bottom out: He loses his family, his title, his money, his dignity. (Cue day drinking and moping in a stained undershirt.) But because he has also likely seen every boxing movie ever made, Hope knows where to go — to an inner-city gym run by a crusty old-timer (Forest Whitaker) who will grudgingly agree to train him for One Last Shot, if he also learns to be a better person by sweeping the floors at night.
- Bound by the ring: Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal
And participate in the mandated training montage of jogging, jump-roping, heavy-bagging and flipping truck tires, all set to an Enimem banger. And show up humbled for a redemptive boxing match held in a church (St. Mary's, no less, named for the all-forgiving mother of that other beat-up guy from the streets).
Speaking of comeback kids, shooting location Pittsburgh gets a few scenes in, doubling for New York City venues: The façade of the former Saks Fifth Avenue Downtown gets made over as Madison Square Garden, and the film's big dramatic scene jumps off in the lobby of the William Penn hotel.
Yet, although Southpaw is a mega-bundle of Lifetime for Men movie tropes, it's pretty watchable. Gyllenhaal brings his wounded-puppy-dog thing, and embeds it in a big rage-filled pile of mumbling muscle; and Whitaker finds some depth in his hackneyed trainer role. (Not surprisingly, Southpaw's best scenes are Gyllenhaal and Whitaker verbally sparring.) A better-than-average kid actor (Oona Laurence) portrays Hope's daughter, and she sells the anger and misery somebody else's failures have heaped on her young life.
The fight scenes are well filmed, even if the outcomes hold little surprise. And yet, although the final bout comes down to — wait for it — the last bell, what can I say: Southpaw is a sweaty, sentimental journey down a well-trod avenue, but it's still a crowd-pleaser.