Like Rocky Balboa and Homer Simpson, Billy Hope, the boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the well-acted, undercooked Southpaw, is the kind of guy who can take a lot of punishment. He thrives on it. Commentators joke that he's unfamiliar with the concept of defense during the movie's opening scenes, in which we catch up with Billy mid-fight. Getting hit makes him angry, and you wouldn't like him when he's angry. In the shot right before the title treatment appears, the best one in the movie, he advances, slow-motion, into focus and at the camera, blood in his mouth and running down his face — a man drawing power from the pummeling he's just taken.
Billy's wife, Maureen, (Rachel McAdams) tells him he'll be brain damaged in two years at the rate he's going, a fact he acknowledges but doesn't want to think about. There are a lot of things Billy prefers not to think about, like the money he freely spends on a massive house and lavish gifts for his friends, or the things that his slick manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) may have done on behalf of his career.
Thinking does not seem to be Billy's strong suit in general, as we see from the way he sweetly, incoherently mutters his way through a charity-event speech for the organization that helped him as an orphaned kid. He's a physical creature, and Gyllenhaal plays him like a boy in the body of a beast, rippling muscle and a diminished affect outside of the ring, where he comes back to himself and assesses the damage. He seems to spend the entire movie recovering from an eye injury, only to immediately get another one in the big fight that takes up the last act. When Billy makes his way to a bare-bones gym run by Forest Whitaker for training, the movie almost makes a joke of the pair's shared ocular asymmetry.
There's nothing exceptional about the fact that Southpaw, which was directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and written by Sons of Anarchy's Kurt Sutter, is a violent movie. It's a movie about boxing, which in addition to looking great onscreen, also basically consists of repeated acts of violence. But it struggles to make its violence count for anything. When you look past Fuqua's jittery directing, which dices up shots and leans the camera close into its star's painstakingly battered mug, Southpaw is a melange of familiar fighter movie ideas and images going back to Rocky. It's about a champ who's come from nothing and who's returned to nothing by tragedy — a fallen hero looking for redemption.
Gyllenhaal's performance is solid, and his physical transformation from underfed Nightcrawler scavenger to bulging brawler is both impressive and awards bait-y. But the most provocative thing Southpaw has going for it is the way it has to juice its comeback story with child endangerment. It establishes a main character so rooted in physical toughness and a willingness to walk into punches until he's dead that it actually needs additional stakes to make his survival worth investing in. Left to his own devices, Billy can't be trusted to keep himself alive. The only way that Southpaw can introduce tension is through Leila (Oona Laurence), Billy's bespectacled, solemn-faced little girl, who waits up for him and tallies his bruises after fights.
Leila ends up in the care of child services for a while, courtesy of legitimate neglect on the part of her anguished father — who's so in the grip of his own emotions he can't think about being a parent. She has to be earned back through very unchamp-like activities like securing a job and going to anger management classes, things that are mostly left offscreen in favor of training sequences. And, most uncomfortably, Leila is there watching as her dad gets back into the game to face the film's bad guy for what's established will be a bloody battle. Southpaw leverages the adorable Laurence with a calculation that's more brutal than anything it depicts in the ring, using her as bait to get its main character to man up, while also channeling its more violent moments through her eyes to give them added resonance. It's an affirmation of family that's largely indifferent to its own contradictions about what's best for the kid it uses for emotional heft.