By T.T. Stern-Enzi


Rating: R, Grade: D+

Jake Gyllenhaal has been working his way up the contender’s list since earning an Academy Award nomination (Supporting Actor) for “Brokeback Mountain,” which was released back in 2005. At the time, I personally felt Gyllenhaal was riding the coattails of his co-star Heath Ledger, who was a Best Actor nominee, in much the same way that say, Ethan Hawke did in 2001, when Denzel Washington subverted his righteous indignation into a seething lesson in “Training Day.” We watched Gyllenhaal and Hawke withstand the powerful assaults of their leads and wanted to recognize their efforts, but, in each case, we sensed these guys were just holding on for dear life.

Gyllenhaal, it seems, knew how we felt and kept punching up, taking aim at bigger, more challenging roles in order to convince us that we needed to pay attention to him. And it could be argued that he was let down, not by any fault of his own, but by the films themselves. He went to war in “Jarhead,” but it was a battle audiences avoided. He chased a serial killer in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” but came up short next to the technical brilliance of Fincher’s sure-handed command. “Rendition” (director Gavin Hood’s follow-up to his Best Foreign Language Film-winner, “Tsotsi”) and “Brothers” (director Jim Sheridan working from a screenplay by David Benioff based on Susanne Bier’s “Brødre”) had obvious pedigree and likely labored mightily under great expectations.

But then, Gyllenhaal snuck in the time travel adventure “Source Code,” which felt like a sneaky indie sucker punch that snapped our heads back, thanks as much to Gyllenhaal’s performance as the trippy premise. He followed that up with “End of Watch” from writer-director David Ayer, which was a bracing examination of life on the streets, shot documentary-style by his character, a police officer in Los Angeles armed with a camera and a gun. Amidst the requisite bravura of the cops versus the criminals in the hood, Gyllenhaal teased us with real hints of humanity. And if his stunning double feature with Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Enemy”) wasn’t enough to capture hearts and minds—as well as points on his score card—last year, he gave us a bare-knuckled turn in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” that re-imagined Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro’s crazed loner from “Taxi Driver”) in a modern context.

So, with that resume, Gyllenhaal must have figured that the best way to put it all on the line was to one-up De Niro, to rage and re-cut his body into a performative sculpture of harsh discipline, to commit to the ring analogy completely. Once again, he teams up with equally committed partners—Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) behind the camera with hard-boiled television veteran Kurt Sutter (“The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”) handling the script—but he’s given much less support than it would appear.

His boxer, Billy “The Great” Hope, we are told, has fought against the odds his whole life. A kid brought up in the system, he met his wife (Rachel McAdams) and his posse in the same conditions and banded together to ride his talent, which was little more than a desire to fight after taking all the blows his opponent could dish out. Of course, life doesn’t get tired of beating up on poor old Billy, and the tragic punches keep coming. His arc isn’t exactly plotted; instead, it is a series of telegraphed Biblical plagues in shorthand strokes that don’t require a character at all, just a slab of meat with fat to trim and blood to spill.

Without a doubt, Gyllenhaal worked hard to learn the craft of boxing, to turn his body into an instrument of will and iron, but what he’s unable to do—because he’s handicapped by the narrative—is truly embrace the spirit of the film’s title, to go “southpaw,” to switch up his attack from the conventional to a style capable of befuddling his opponent, in order to deliver the knock-out. With “Southpaw,” it is Gyllenhaal who is on the ropes and in the clinch, holding onto his opponent, rather than attacking. But, Gyllenhaal will not let this happen again. Next time, he will strike hard.