Given today’s boring—sorry, more technical—style of boxing, few fighters would dare move like Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta did in Raging Bull. Which is why Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope is a refreshing throwback. In Southpaw, Hope is an undefeated heavyweight champ whose victories leave his face looking like an eggplant. Jacked and tatted for the role, Gyllenhaal is all but unrecognizable from the rapacious, nefarious, and fast-talking sociopath he played in last year’s sleeper hit Nightcrawler. You’ll wince as his Billy wears down opponents by offering up his face as a speed bag. Then, when his body’s been reduced to blood and gristle, he bull rushes them for the win.
Southpaw tells yet another story about a self-destructive fighter, the flawed but indomitable everyman. Billy doesn’t seem to hear his wife, the staggeringly beautiful Rachel McAdams, as she tells him—post-fight, pre-coitus—that if he keeps it up he’ll be punch-drunk in two years. Eventually, Billy finds himself back on the streets, homeless and desperately in need of a new style, in and out of the ring.
Fans of the biker series Sons of Anarchy will recognize an unrelenting darkness in Southpaw. That’s because it was written by Sons creator Kurt Sutter. Gyllenhaal’s Rocky optimism and steel-cut physicality make the film a lot more entertaining—and less expensive—than the real thing on pay-per-view.
Check it out in theaters July 24th.