Southpaw is a paint by numbers boxing drama kept afloat by good direction and a ferocious Jake Gyllenhaal performance.
Southpaw stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a fighter who went from being a troubled New York orphan to the undefeated World Light Heavyweight boxing champion, happily married to his childhood sweetheart, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and living the dream life. However, Billy’s punch-drunk boxing method has started to take a toll on him both physically and mentally; consequently, when upstart fighter Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) taunts Billy outside the ring, the latter takes the bait and gets into a fist-fight with Miguel that ends in personal tragedy for Billy.
Billy’s subsequent descent into self-destruction costs him not just his career and fortune, but also leads him to lose custody of his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Looking to get his life back on track, Billy takes a night job at a gym owned by the ex-professional boxer/boxing coach Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker), while training there during the day. Together, Billy and Tick help one another in their efforts to find redemption outside (and just maybe inside) the ring.
Written by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, Southpaw features a very conventional boxing drama narrative that derives its plot beats and character elements from many, many famous cinematic sports tales that have come before it. Sutter’s screenplay, similar to his work on Sons of Anarchy, blends old-fashioned melodrama with modern grittiness in its examination of the world of professional boxing and the struggles of the lower-financial class. The resulting storyline is under-cooked in terms of character development and predictable enough that it teeters on parody at times (due to its self-seriousness), but it has enough forward momentum and energy to stay upright and not collapse under the weight of its genre clichés.
That’s in part thanks to Antoine Fuqua, who handles the Southpaw narrative with a steady directorial hand. Fuqua uses the same meticulous visual storytelling approach here as he did with his previous B-movie efforts (Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer), relying on precise camera shot angles and lighting techniques – courtesy of his longtime cinematographer Mauro Fiore – to create an effectively down and dirty portrayal of not just life inside the boxing ring, but also the grimy New York streets and buildings where most of the film’s characters reside. Southpaw is a case of style trumping substance (even more so than some of Fuqua’s recent B-movies), but the manner in which Fuqua and his collaborators stage the proceedings help to compensate for the narrative shortcomings.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Billy Hope (and yes, characters in the movie do crack jokes about his name) also helps to elevate Southpaw above being just a hollow sports drama. Gyllenhaal’s impressive physical transformation aside, the character actor keeps his winning streak alive here, with yet another memorable turn as firecracker Billy, transitioning with ease from being a gentle Marlon Brando-esque mumbler to a raging brawler, in any given scene. Fuqua, as director, goes overboard with the gruesome closeups of Gyllenhaal bleeding and/or sweating profusely during his training, but Gyllenhaal’s raw performance is more successful at selling Southpaw as the hard-boiled tale of redemption it was meant to be.
Gyllenhaal doesn’t carry Southpaw on his own, as the rest of the film’s main cast give the frequently contrived narrative more dramatic weight and authenticity. Rachel McAdams as Billy’s wife Maureen doesn’t play a huge role in the story, but she delivers a fine performance as someone who knows how to look and act the role of the champion fighter’s wife in public (while keeping her fears and concerns hidden from the limelight). Similarly, Forest Whitaker as ‘Tick’ is a variation on the archetypical semi-eccentric trainer, but he infuses the character will genuine humanity and compassion whenever he’s onscreen. The same goes for young Oona Laurence as Billy’s daughter Leila, who struggles to deal with the sudden onslaught of personal trauma in her life.
The Southpaw supporting cast is under-utilized but solid (on the whole) and includes Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as the kind social worker who helps Billy and Leila to repair their relationship; Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (Power) as Billy’s morally-dubious manager, Jordan Mains; Skylan Brooks (The Get Down) as Hoppy, a young wannabe boxer who helps Billy train (and vice versa); and Miguel Gomez (The Strain) as the hotshot fighter Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar. It’s possible some of these supporting characters played a larger role in the Southpaw narrative at some point in the project’s development, and that might have given the plot more needed meat on its bones.
Southpaw is a paint by numbers boxing drama kept afloat by good direction and a ferocious Jake Gyllenhaal performance, when all is said and done. It’s a film that’s just as likely to elicit eye-rolls from certain moviegoers as it is to pull on the heartrings of others, for those same reasons. As such, those with a soft spot for the boxing movie genre may want to give this one a look in theaters, as it will hit the right notes for them. For other filmgoers, however, Southpaw will likely feel like little more than an extra gritty retread of the Rocky formula.
Southpaw is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 123 minutes long and is Rated R for language throughout, and some violence.
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