Jake Gyllenhaal was robbed last year from an Oscar nomination for his transformative and riveting performance in Nightcrawler (I'd actually say it was the best of the year). Gyllenhaal has become an incredible character actor that makes major physical changes and completely throws himself into each role where he'll master strikingly different mannerisms and physical ticks for every movie. But he has gone unrecognized by the Academy outside of Brokeback Mountain because from best I can guess, he hasn't starred in Oscar style pictures. His movies are slick, stylized, and disturbing and either mainstream thrillers like Prisoners or bizarre, experimental indies like Enemy. If the actual pictures are the reason Gyllenhaal keeps getting snubbed, then expect another cold shudder over his latest transformation in this summer counter-programming release, Southpaw.
Gyllenhaal once again has thrown himself into a character drastically different than his previous. Last Fall he was the gawky and malnourished-looking Louis Bloom and now this summer he will be the absolutely ripped and chiseled boxing sensation, Billy Hope. It is amazing the lengths this talented actor will go to make his roles authentic and drastically different than his past. There wasn't much here to really get a feel for his performance, but Hope also isn't really designed to be an unforgettable and disturbing character like Bloom. I'm confident the nuance and subtle touch will still be present, because Gyllenhaal seems pretty incapable of a bad showing.
As for the movie, it feels like a grittier and darker take on the classic Rocky tale. This time around he is a superstar boxer already bathing in the spotlight but then a tragic night throws everything apart. A tragic night that seem to follow Director Antoine Fuqua's hobby of casting a talented and big name female that gets written out after only a few scenes (or maybe Rachel McAdams will appear frequently in nightmares and flashbacks). Poor Hope's life falls into a tailspin, and his stakes of rising up increase as he needs to win back the heart of his daughter, prove he can be a father, and smash up the face of the new world champion. All these things can be realized with the help of a crusty but talented trainer, who may have never played the Penguin but was an evil dictator ruling over Uganda.
It feels like a well-worn and travelled path with the expected stops. To be fair, most trailers are designed for the sole purpose of reminding you of other popular and beloved movies in hopes that the warm-fuzzy of nostalgia will draw you out. There is a chance a more complex and deeper movie is hidden in here.
I'm still eager to see Southpaw, because I'm enamoured with Gyllenhaal and willing to give him a chance in anything he chooses (that isn't called Accidental Love). I also find myself curiously excited every time I see Fuqua attached to direct a picture, despite the fact I've only really liked Training Day, which was released back in 2001.
Fuqua is an action director and isn't about subtleties or complexities, but is heavily stylized and has a feverish pace to his movies. Even with his disappointing movies like The Equalizer, there is a grace and poetry to his action sequences that feel more artful than something made by more blunt and special effects focused directors. I find myself drawn in even if the screenplay or actual story induces eyeball rolling. I'm interested to see how he directs the boxing matches and I can feel bit of personality coming through in the trailer. The boxing sequences could be great considering they have legitimate boxing star Victor Ortiz playing the opposition. This is a hard edged boxing picture with a blaring soundtrack and a visual style that makes it feel edgier and rougher than Rocky or The Fighter.
I can't shake the feeling that this also feels a bit schmaltzy and melodramatic. Tender and touching drama isn't something I really trust Fuqua's sensibility on here. But again, there is a chance the scenes with the daughter are quieter and shorter than it seems like in the trailer. Hopefully, the picture focuses more on the director's strengths or allows Gyllenhaal shine. Considering the screenplay is written by Kurt Sutter who established his name as the showrunner for Sons of Anarchy and a major write for The Shield, it is likely going to be a testosterone fuelled adrenaline rush that splashes sweat and blood at the audience. It will be interesting to see how Sutter adapts to his first movie script and how he settles into a more focused and concise form that demands things feel more epic but also intimate.
It still stands out as something different and more adult amongst the big PG-13 franchise monsters of the summer, so that alone is enough to be intrigued. Forrest Whittaker as a grumpy trainer has potential, and I don't know Naomie Harris' role but she is a great upcoming star that hopefully has a substantial part. I also have a trainwreck-like fascination when talents like 50 Cent seem to be cast against type, and ever since Tyler Perry's eye opening performance in Gone Girl, I won't underestimate anyone before seeing them do their thing. This might not be a knock-out, but I've got hopes it can still win with a decision.