From the opening scene, viewers are immediately shocked at the makeover of Jake Gyllenhaal into the junior middleweight boxing champion Billy “The Great” Hope. The 34-year old Gyllenhaal lost 25 pounds for his role in last year’s dark thriller “Nightcrawler.” Now in “Southpaw,” Gyllenhaal has transformed his body into a Tony Horton lab specimen by adding 15 pounds of pure muscle by doing over 2,000 sit-ups per day and spending 42 hours a week working out in a New York boxing gym.
The lean and mean Gyllenhaal we witness in “Southpaw” bears no resemblance to the 11-year-old boy we first met playing Billy Crystal’s son in the 1991 comedy “City Slickers.” Likewise, Gyllenhaal has dramatically improved his acting skills with each year and movie, leading to a meteoric rise in Hollywood to leading-man status. His remarkable mental and physical commitment to the Billy Hope boxer role brings an authenticity to the big-screen, making it difficult to take our eyes off of the vastly talented Gyllenhaal.
Between songs from rapper Eminem, “Southpaw” takes us on a powerful journey of a devoted husband and father who has risen to the top of the boxing profession only to face one personal struggle after another. Extraordinary performances bookend Gyllenhaal’s most challenging and successful acting masterpiece to date. HBO “True Detective” star Rachel McAdams plays the strong wife to Gyllenhaal and nurturing mother to their daughter, portrayed by Oona Laurence (from Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”). Both McAdams and Laurence shine bright as firm influences upon Gyllenhaal’s intense Billy Hope character, delivering the realism to “Southpaw’s” moving storyline.
Although Gyllenhaal carries “Southpaw” all 12 rounds, it’s the infusion of Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as Hope’s trainer that makes this film a dominate success. Every scene between these two very distinct personalities garners our full attention — particularly the ad-libbed lines from Whitaker on life in general. This perfect chemistry of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker provides a credible and gripping look at being down, but not out, in the fight for one’s survival.
The powerful one-two combination from director Antoine Fuqua (2014’s “The Equalizer”) and screenplay writer Kurt Sutter (TV’s “Sons of Anarchy” director/writer/star) wisely make “Southpaw” a movie about a boxer, not boxing.
Gyllenhaal’s Billy “The Great” Hope is first and foremost a husband and father. The body punches he takes in the ring are no comparison to the blows Hope must endure and overcome on the streets.
“Southpaw” is the most emotional and stirring boxing performance on film since Rocky chased chickens and ran steps in 1976 Philly. Gyllenhaal’s commitment and dedication to this Billy Hope boxing role, is no less than miraculous. His mental and physical metamorphosis, combined with an edgy script, disturbing story, rock solid supporting cast, and sensational soundtrack all make “Southpaw” a bout not to miss.
No split-decision here; this film’s realism and gut-wrenching scorecard of a family’s ability to overcome staggering adversity is one that no odds maker in Las Vegas would take. The Jake Gyllenhaal we see in Southpaw is a leaner, meaner and better actor than we’ve ever seen before. This film makes Gyllenhaal an Oscar contender.