Whenever a famous actor undergoes a major physical transformation in preparation for a role, there's a tendency for the details of their process to overshadow any actual acting involved, as though the ability to employ a personal trainer and dietician is the true indicator of what distinguishes a great performance from the rest. These types of bodily transformations are a sure sign that a performance is built for Oscar consideration, and sure enough, in the press coverage leading up to the release of "Southpaw," most of the discussion has centered around Jake Gyllenhaal's physical transformation into a world champion light-heavyweight boxer. And to be fair, the change he's gone through is impressive, particularly when you consider that the actor leapt straight from portraying gaunt, sociopathic cameraman Leo Bloom in "Nightcrawler" into molding himself into chiseled prizefighter condition; he is impressively ripped.
But an actor's body is just one tool at their disposal, and this beefy physical appearance turns out to be just one facet of a complex, fully-realized performance. Gyllenhaal's work here reminds us that over the past few years, he's quietly turned into one of his generation's most versatile actors. If "Southpaw" -- written by Kurt Sutter, creator of "Sons of Anarchy," and directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") -- doesn't quite live up to the performance at its center, it's still a solidly successful tale of redemption, in which a character hits rock bottom and has to claw his way back to the top.
Gyllenhaal stars as undefeated world champion boxer Billy Hope (yes, that's actually his name; subtlety isn't a priority here). As the film begins, he's in the prime of his career, living a dream life with his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), offering ringside encouragement and a young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence, giving a remarkably assured performance), waiting for them back home in their mansion. But then, in the chaos that erupts during a confrontation with a rival boxer and his posse, the unthinkable happens, and Maureen is accidentally shot and killed. It's an intense, viscerally-staged scene that Fuqua mines for all its emotional power. In just a few scenes, McAdams and Gyllenhaal build up years of history -- we believe them as a couple -- making her death all the more devastating to witness.
The loss sends Billy in a downward spiral; without Maureen there to guide him, Billy loses his way, and his career and wealth soon disintegrate. When Billy's increasingly erratic behavior puts Leila in jeopardy, he loses custody of his daughter and must prove himself capable of being a father again. Enter Titus "Tick" Wills (Forest Whitaker, dependably terrific in a stock role) as the sage trainer who agrees to give Billy a job at his gym, then doles out life lessons and helps whip Billy back into prime shape after his old manager (50 Cent) reemerges to propose another fight to resurrect the fighter's career.
Continuing a streak that includes stellar work in "End of Watch," "Prisoners," and "Enemy," Gyllenhaal delivers a layered, lived-in performance that's as beefy as his new body. Billy wears his muscle like a suit of armor built up as a defense against a hard life (we learn that he and Maureen both grew up in an orphanage in Hell's Kitchen), but as the chinks in that armor multiply, there's no protection for the mass of raw nerves underneath. Gyllenhaal has a nice rapport with Laurence, crucial as Billy's relationship with Leila becomes the film's emotional center.
Naomie Harris ("Skyfall") portrays the caseworker from child services assigned to Leila, and though well-acted by Harris, it's mostly a thankless part. It's not immediately clear why this woman becomes so quickly invested in this particular family's struggle, and by the end, she's mostly around to be an extra body to cheer Billy on during the climactic fight.
Throughout the film, there's a sometimes uneasy balance between the melodramatic plot and the harsh grittiness of Fuqua's direction. Occasionally, some of the plot specifics are a little fuzzy; I was unclear on the passage of time after Maureen's death, where Billy's money seems to run out awfully quick, and I didn't entirely buy the fact that there was no real development in the investigation into her death. But those sorts of details aren't deal breakers when the emotions underlying the plot machinations work as well as they do here. The film's many fight sequences are appropriately dramatic and always feel authentic, as well they should: Fuqua hired HBO Boxing camera operators Todd Palladino and Rick Cypher to film those sequences.
It's always inspiring to watch a character pull themselves up from nothing, and with such a strong turn from Gyllenhaal, it's hard not to root for Billy as he's bloodied but never down for the count. His captivating work helps get us through the film's first half, when the piling on of tragedy -- combined with Fuqua's in-your-face directing style -- has the potential to leave the audience feeling as pummeled as Billy himself.