At Cannes, Harvey Weinstein announced that Jake Gyllenhaal would end up with an Oscar nomination for his performance in the (Weinstein-distributed) “Southpaw.” Based on the first reviews for the Antoine Fuqua boxing drama, which had its world premiere at the Shanghai Film Festival and hits U.S. theaters on July 24, he had better, since apart from Gyllenhaal’s performance, there’s little to recommend it. The synopses of the script by Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”) read close to parody, with Gyllenhaal as a successful boxer who hits the skids after (spoiler) wife Rachel McAdams is killed in a gunfight, and must subsequently fight to win back both his self-respect and the custody of their daughter. Gyllenhaal’s much-Tumblred physical transformation is certainly eye-catching, but even there, critics hedge, judging it inferior in depth, if not muscular definition, to Gyllenhaal’s turn in last year’s “Nightcrawler.” (Even Weinstein tacitly acknowledged as much by pitching Gyllenhaal’s potential “Southpaw” nomination as a make-up nod.) Given that Weinstein’s Oscar predictions tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies — the man knows how to follow through — the chances are good we’ll be hearing a lot more about “Southpaw,” not just as the release date nears, but all through awards season. The question now is whether anyone else will keep talking about it.
Reviews of “Southpaw”
Justin Chang, Variety
You can practically smell the blood, the sweat and the fierce actorly commitment rising from Jake Gyllenhaal’s bruised and tattooed body in “Southpaw,” a bluntly conventional melodrama about a champion boxer forced to undergo a grim crucible of physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. Yet the undeniable intensity of Gyllenhaal’s bulked-up, Method-mumbling performance may leave you feeling more pummeled than convinced in this heavy-handed tale of redemption, in which director Antoine Fuqua once more demonstrates his fascination with codes of masculine aggression, extreme violence and not much else. Creakily plotted over the course of its rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectory, this partly Chinese-funded production may land enough visceral blows to catch on with audiences on its July 24 release through the Weinstein Co., but seems less likely to attain the prestige-hit status of superior efforts like “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter.”
Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter
Though the tenderly handsome “Nightcrawler” star naturally looks about as much of a boxer as baby-faced Alain Delon in “Rocco and His Brothers” — which is to say, not at all — here the former Donnie Darko has been transformed into a tattooed, muscle-bound, raging bull gladiator. It’s even hard to recognize him in the opening shots, which emphasize Billy’s blood-soaked face and wild roar as he thunders at his opponent in Madison Square Garden, delivering the winning blows that make him world champ.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
Much as he did with last year’s “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal disappears into a closed-off, peculiar man who sometimes seems to be more a collection of finely-tuned actor-ly tics than a fully dimensional character. Gyllenhaal does great work exposing Billy’s good heart while emphasising the boxer’s scrappy demeanor. (Billy constantly mumbles and twitches outside the ring, vulnerable in the traditional world with an elegance and ferocity when he boxes.) But the dedication Gyllenhaal brings to the role ultimately doesn’t overcome the threadbare construction: Billy is just one more raging bull thrust into a predictable underdog role who has to win over his daughter while gearing up for the big fight.
Steve Pond, The Wrap
The film itself can’t avoid a few of the boxing-movie cliches we’ve come to know (and sometimes love) over the years: there’s the boxer returning to the mean streets where he grew up, the trash-talking champ, the grizzled trainer out to give his boy one more shot at the big time… Yes, we’ve seen this before, and no doubt we’ll see it again. But even when his punches are being telegraphed, Gyllenhall still hits hard enough to warrant the awards talk.