Southpaw punches through every single boxing movie trope – the story keeps jabbing us with cliché after cliché until the audience throws in the towel. While it’s a predictable movie, Jake Gyllenhaal gives an undeniably intense and visceral performance – both inside and outside of the ring.
Meet Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the undefeated champion (43 – 0) known for taking hits until he’s angry enough to unleash his proverbial raging bull. When his beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is accidentally shot and killed during a brawl with an up and coming rival (read: murdered). Billy becomes increasingly self-destructive, losing his belt, his money, his disloyal manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and his daughter (Oona Laurence), who’s taken away by Child Protective Services. Since the man’s name is Billy HOPE (not very subtle), Southpaw follows the redemption of a fighter.
The trailers for this film had me intrigued, mostly by the promise of yet another great performance from Jake Gyllenhaal – who is unbelievably underrated as a leading man. Gyllenhaal is an incredibly gifted and committed actor – going through great lengths and preparation for every role. For Southpaw, he trained relentlessly for 5 months, gaining muscle and working intensely with boxing trainers. The results of his efforts are on display, all blood, sweat and tears glory in the boxing ring – he’s twice the size that he used to be (seriously, look at the size of Gyllenhaal in this film), carries the gait, voice and demeanor of a down and out former champion, and packs incredible power into a demanding physical and somewhat emotional role.
Unfortunately, all of Gyllenhaal`s commitment and intensity is wasted in Southpaw. He`s not given a lot to work with outside of the ring. I really wish this film had more to show for all that effort.
The supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams as Maureen Hope, who uses what little screen time she has pretty well. Oona Laurence is also quite good as Leila Hope, Billy and Maureen’s precocious daughter. The scenes between McAdams, Laurence and Gyllenhaal are effective, but extremely heavy handed.
As with any boxing flick, we need to have a disillusioned boxing veteran to serve up some ringside wisdom with a side of life lessons. For all that Tick Wills is an overdone cliché, Forest Whitaker was the perfect choice for a down and out trainer, but is left with nothing to do except spout off rehashed pearls of wisdom like “boxing is like a chess game”.
Let’s get to Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson – who plays his role as Hope’s scheming ex-manager like a cartoon with dollar signs in its eyes. He’s scheming right from the start – the audience knows not to trust him. I could not take him seriously.
The script and story (from Kurt Sutter, Sons of Anarchy) leave a lot to be desired. There`s a lot of missed opportunities in Southpaw – with so many narrative directions – while we still have the typical fall, rise, redemption story – add to it orphanages, child protection services, money problems, father-daughter relationships, scheming managers, an unnecessary subplot about an at risk youth at Tick’s gym, and actual MURDER. So much plot! The big problem with this is that we end up with quite a few loose or dead ends.
Don’t worry, it’s a boxing flick, so we get a pretty great training montage (thanks to Rocky for making these a mainstay in boxing flicks), this time set to Eminem’s “Phenomenal”. After seeing the film, I learned that the role of Billy Hope was originally written for rapper Eminem. The film still carries some overtures of 8 Mile-biopic swagger (knees weak, arms heavy, but minus mom’s spaghetti) – which invariably leads me to believe that the movie was crafted more like a music video than an actual film.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) labors through the heavier “family man” scenes, but absolutely dominates in the ring. The fight sequences are stunning – well executed, excellently paced and handled brilliantly by cinematographer Mauro Fiore.
The film really comes alive in the ring, as does Billy Hope. It plays out like an HBO event – full of glitz, glamor, tension and spectacular action. The fights are the main event in this film. It would have made for a dazzling highlight reel on ESPN.
Southpaw is by no means a bad movie; it’s a fairly run of the mill sports flick. Gyllenhaal elevates a fairly generic boxing movie with the sheer exhausting effort that he’s put into the role. It’s unfortunate that the film ends up down for the count.