** SPOILERS **
"The Great White Dope" reads a headline about Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, who lost his fortune, his career, and the care of his young daughter when his wife (Rachel McAdams) was (accidentally?) murdered. That headline is on point. Southpaw is a grizzled rehash of the first five Rocky movies, centering around Gyllenhaal's fighter, a Hell's Kitchen, NY-born orphan who came up through the system and became a world champion, despite his general lack of intelligence and crippling anger management issues. Billy Hope even fights like Rocky Balboa, leading with his face until he gets mad and knocks out his opponents in the late rounds of his fights. In an incident similar to how Mr. T provoked the death of Mickey in Rocky III, a cocky challenger insults Gyllenhaal's manhood and implies carnal relations with his wife. In the ensuing melee that involves of both of their entourages, a gun goes off and McAdams is shot to death. Stricken with grief and wholly unprepared to meet his parental and financial obligations, Gyllenhaal behaves erratically and violently until child services interferes, taking custody of his daughter while Gyllenhaal loses all of his worldly possessions to auction. It couldn't have happened to a dumber guy.
The main thrust of Southpaw is Gyllenhaal's fumbling attempts to regain custody of his daughter who (rightly) blames him for the death of her mother. Going back to basics, Gyllenhaal gets a custodial job at a low rent gym owned by Forest Whitaker, who only trains amateur fighters, mainly disadvantaged kids, to keep them off the streets. Against his better judgment, Whitaker agrees to train Gyllenhaal for an eventual comeback, teaching him the revolutionary art of defense, i.e. not spending ten rounds getting punched in the face. Of course, the big redemption fight happens, thanks to fight promoter 50 Cent, playing a low key version of Don King. The movie can't decide if he's a villain or not. The movie doesn't even decide how Gyllenhaal lost his fortune; the script is unsure whether Gyllenhaal's accountant stole all his money. If the script doesn't know, then we certainly don't know. Speaking of the script, all conversation between Gyllenhaal and his family ends with them calling each other "baby," as if Final Draft just kept adding "baby" at the end of all the dialogue and the writer was too lazy to delete it, baby. Southpaw also seems to feel all the philosophical conversations about boxing between Rocky, Mickey, and Apollo Creed were too eloquent, because Southpaw careens in the opposite direction. When Whitaker tries to explain his boxing philosophy and life lessons to Gyllenhaal, "incoherent" doesn't quite cover it.
To his credit, Gyllenhaal physically transforms into a credible fighter, and he holds Southpaw together by sheer force of his talent, even as the movie stumbles around him like a punch drunk fighter on the ropes. Whitaker also does interesting stuff with his mentor character, trying to find and convey a depth that's lacking on the page. The most interesting moments of Southpaw are Gyllenhaal's fleeting relationship with a young black kid at the gym; their few scenes together are more compelling than all of Gyllenhaal's attempts to reconnect with his daughter. Director Antoine Fuqua brings his A-game to the fight scenes, which are as visceral, bloody, and rousing as boxing movies get. Southpaw wants us to believe, among other things, that light heavyweight boxing is the hottest ticket in sports, and that Gyllenhaal can lose his title, his wife, his fortune, his daughter, go into poverty, and mount a comeback where he regains his championship and his family in the span of a few weeks. It sure was a tough financial quarter for Billy "The Great" Hope, but he came through it all right. Until the next time he loses his shit and loses everything as a result, baby.