Director Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw starts with boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) as the light-heavyweight champ of the world. Obviously, he’s headed for some nasty sucker punch. But what? His wife (and the boss of him) Maureen (Rachel McAdams) worries that he’s taking too many hits. The Hopes–really, it’s their name, and they were raised in orphanages–have a nouveau riche lifestyle to support as well as a cherished child (the fiercely good Oona Laurence). “Make sure she doesn’t break her neck,” Mo says to Billy, enjoining him to join the girl on the poolside trampoline.
Southpaw is a foreshadowing machine, but it works, movingly, because Fuqua (Training Day) tempers the melodrama inherent in screenwriter Kurt Sutter’s (Sons of Anarchy) script with a muted tone and clear confidence in his cast. McAdams doesn’t have many lines, but her eyes and simple gestures–the way she ruefully turns over a pile of bloody towels–say all. When things go wrong, they go really wrong, and for poor dopey Billy, it does seem as if nobody up there likes him. To climb from the depths, he needs his Burgess Meredith. Or his Yoda. Enter Forest Whitaker as the gruff keeper of an urban gym. Even as you question whether Billy needs to relearn boxing completely, the pleasure lies in watching Whitaker silkily extract something fresh from this stock character.
But Southpaw is Gyllenhaal’s movie. He made his name playing pensive, intense boys, and it’s been hard to shed that youthful image. Maybe it’s those yearning eyes. But he’s been on a studious march to movie manhood, transforming himself physically and otherwise. For last year’s sleazy Nightcrawler he was rail-thin and projected a glittering, Travis Bickle–like lunacy. Now he’s playing a buffed-up boxer with anger issues. Is this his Raging Bull? Southpaw is well made, but too conventional to skip the victorious ending or leave that kind of indelible impression. Gyllenhaal though? He’s no lightweight.
This appears in the August 03, 2015 issue of TIME.