The opening of Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw, shot in gritty, grayed-out tones, is a grim harbinger: A fighter getting ready for the ring holds up his meaty paws for the ritualistic wrapping of gauze and tape. His gloves are slipped over the wrappings, and then they're taped on too -- but while his fists may be imprisoned, his mind has got to stay quick and free. The fighter is a scrapper from Hell's Kitchen — he came up there, presumably in the days when it was still hellish — with the portentous name Billy Hope, and he's played by an ornately tattooed Jake Gyllenhaal, who's all skin, muscle, and eyes. You just know that in the course of the next few hours great and terrible things will happen to Billy. There will be very little in-between.
After an initial, fleeting moment of triumph, the first half of Southpawcharts Billy's rapid and painful downward spiral, initiated by one horrific incident. His looping free-fall of despair, punishing to witness, can't end soon enough. But the rest of Southpaw— which details Billy's clawing his way back to everything that matters to him — doesn't have enough dramatic spring to win us back. The problem isn't just that Southpawis predictable. Fuqua heaps the movie's first half with so much misery that by the time Forest Whitaker shows up as the tough-but-sensitive neighborhood trainer-sensei who'll get the fallen Billy back on track -- come on, you knew that was coming -- we already feel beaten to the consistency of hamburger. Still, if nothing else, Fuqua always works with fine actors, and he's got a passel of them here, especially Rachel McAdams in the stock protective-wife role.