Jake Gyllenhaal is on a roll. Onscreen in Nightcrawler, Enemy and Prisoners, and onstage in Constellations, Little Shop of Horrors and If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, he shows the kind of versatility and commitment that should have won him prizes. The awards didn't materialize, but it's just a matter of time. Maybe it'll be for Southpaw, a retro, in-your-face fight drama that dribbles into sappiness. Much, though far from all, is redeemed by Gyllenhaal's virtuoso performance. The actor, 34, trained for four months and gained 15 pounds of muscle to play light-heavyweight champ Billy Hope. But the externals — scars, tattoos and slurred voice — don't begin to suggest the emotional depths Gyllenhaal brings to the part of a bruiser on the ropes.
Billy is at the top of his game, but constant jabs have left him punchy. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), wants him to slow down and enjoy their 11-year-old daughter, Leila (a feisty Oona Laurence). Maureen is way more than lacquered hair, nails and spray tan. She and Billy were raised in Hell's Kitchen orphanages. McAdams, strong and smoldering, is explosively good. Spoiler alert: Her role is shortened when Maureen is involved in a shooting accident sparked by Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a fighter who thinks he can goad Billy into taking him on for high stakes.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), working from an overcooked screenplay by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), knows he's not in the same ring with Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, though the script unblushingly mooches from each of them. Still, Fuqua shuffles the tools of the genre with genuine flair. As tragedy lands Billy in the pits of desperation, poverty and child-custody battles, Fuqua shifts focus from Billy's crooked agent (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) to a trainer-savior, Tick Wills (the expert Forest Whitaker), who teaches Billy a new fighting style that doesn't involve stopping punches with his head.
The powerful boxing scenes, vividly shot from Madison Square Garden to Vegas by Mauro Fiore and edited by John Refoua, help distract from the father-daughter scenes that outdo The Champ (the Wallace Beery original and the Jon Voight remake) for gooey sentiment. Amazingly, Gyllenhaal never cheats on his character's sense of dignity. Against the odds, he keeps you in Billy's corner. That's a champ.