Southpaw – Review
By David Baldwin
If you have had the misfortune of seeing the trailer for this week’s Southpaw, you may be disappointed when you watch the movie. It is common place for a film trailer to give away the best parts of the movie. That is nothing new. But Southpaw‘s trailer gives away all but the entirety of the film. A little disheartening but even with that in mind, the film may still rank as one of the best this summer has given us.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unstoppable force as a boxer. He has a storied past as an orphan and a criminal, but he turned it all around with the help of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). He is at the top of his game when tragedy strikes, losing Billy everything including the custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). With nothing to lose, he turns to veteran boxing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him turn it all around.
While it might not sound like much on paper — and definitely does not sound like the spiritual sequel to the semi-autobiographical 8 Mile as some continue to mention — Southpaw is a well made, emotional and sweet boxing film. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and packs a punch right from the opening frame. Writer Kurt Sutter (best known for creating the brutally addictive TV show Sons of Anarchy) and director Antoine Fuqua elevate the film past its Hallmark movie-of-the-week setup (mainly through its savagely violent portrayal of boxing), and develop it into a film you can really rally behind. You want to see Billy succeed.
And most of that success relies on the shoulders of Gyllenhaal, who continues to transform himself into one of the greatest actors of this generation. He transforms himself physically and mentally into Billy, giving the performance everything he has. His character gets put through an emotional roller coaster, but he just keeps coming back for more. It gets gut wrenching to watch in more than one sense, but Gyllenhaal never drops the ball. This is brilliant method acting from an actor who continues to defy definition. He missed out on an Oscar nomination for his towering and mesmerizing turn in last year’s Nightcrawler (if you still have not seen it, now is the time), but he has an early shot at a nomination here.
Whitaker is great as always in his supporting role, acting as the emotional centre of the film. Some of his dialogue is a little too preachy in sections, but he makes it all look truly inspiring. I just wish he got introduced a little earlier in the film. Relative unknown Laurence also does very well as Leila. She is just perfect as the precocious and impressionable daughter. She gets to be absolutely devastating in some scenes, stealing the spotlight from Gyllenhaal’s commanding performance in the process — something that is not easy in the least. McAdams gives yet another great performance in her thankless role, but the real surprise is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who gets to have a lot of fun as Billy’s manager Jordan. His character’s motivation is a bit cliche, but Jackson still manages to make it memorable. I would have liked to have seen a bit more from the film’s “villian” Miguel Gomez. He hangs over so much of it like a plague, just screwing with Billy at every turn. But he never really does much else, and his character’s actions just feel very forced to fit the confines of the plot.
Despite the great performances, Southpaw really shines in its boxing scenes. Not since Raging Bull has a boxing ring felt so brutal and horrific. Fuqua gets in close with the camera, never flinching at how graphic the matches become. It watches the fight, but it also becomes part of it — in some scenes giving the audience a point-of-view look at what is happening. It feels disorienting, but it also feels real and harrowing. It allows Gyllenhaal’s performance to become that much more authentic and gritty. You can practically taste the sweat and blood.
Even if you skipped the trailer, the only true fault I hold against Southpaw is how predictable it is. Nothing in this story bares any sense of originality, and from the moment Billy starts to become undone, it is fairly obvious which beats the film will take. Worse yet — it feels like Southpaw takes its thematic sensibilities from Rocky, albeit with a post-modern sheen of grit and vicious violence. It throws no figurative punches, and the film course corrects any chance of veering itself into different directions. Subplots and characters are introduced, and then instantly done away with. The event that really sets the film in motion is never properly resolved, and a small character moment late in the film involving a young kid at Wills’ gym should be emotional and have resonance. Instead, it is brushed off as an after-thought and practically erased in favour of the film moving quicker to the end-game. This does not take away from how enjoyable the film is in the end, but makes for a bit of a disappointment when the credits roll.
At least they had enough sense to make Rita Ora’s mention in the credits be somewhat memorable, unlike her tiny cameo in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Southpaw is a well made and enjoyable film regardless of its stale story. With an incredible performance from Gyllenhaal that more than makes up for the film’s shortcomings, it becomes practically unmissable.