Southpaw review – fighter shows punch left in boxing genre

Proving there’s still some gas left in the genre, Southpaw is an emotional and entertaining look at a boxer’s struggle to reclaim his desire to fight both inside and outside the ring.

Out of all the niche sports dramas there’s not a lot of ways to say something new in a boxing movie. Considering how expertly the two signature films in the genre — Rocky and Raging Bull — covered the boxer’s journey of the fall of a champion and the making of a champion, there’s not a lot of gold to be mined for new material.

 Photo: Scott Garfield © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

To Southpaw’s credit, Director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) and Screenwriter Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) don’t spend the entire film chasing clichés and star Jake Gyllenhaal delivers such a strong performance that while it may at times be familiar, you’ll remain engaged.

Initially, the film sticks with the normal themes of the genre — a bighearted, but not so bright fighter Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) has battled his way to an undefeated streak and numerous titles to cement his legacy.

SOUTHPAWHe’s endlessly devoted to his daughter, Leila (a promising Oona Laurence) and wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), who’s worried about Billy’s long-term health and leery of the hanger-ons including fight promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent, Escape Plan). Maureen notices Billy is losing some of his edge and taking more punishment than usual and wants him to retire while he can still enjoy it.

Before retiring, Billy has to deal with the mounting pressure to fight the No. 1 contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), boxing’s next big thing. A confrontation between the two turns to tragedy and Billy’s life unravels to the point he loses nearly everything.

Southpaw - Miguel Gomez, Beau Knapp, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams

It’s here that Fuqua differentiates Southpaw from other boxing epics. Billy’s pain and heartache is justified as this is one moment in his life that fighting can’t make better. Billy may be a bit punch drunk, but Gyllenhaal avoids making him just another boxer caricature.

Gyllenhaal has always been a competent actor, but he’s operating at a much higher level now. He approaches Billy with a ferocity and heart unlike any of his previous roles. In spite of your cynicism and knowing how the film should end, Gyllenhaal gets us invested in Billy’s journey to recovering all he’s lost. While it’s still early to start lining up award nominations, Gyllenhaal firmly puts his bid in for Oscar consideration with a performance that should still be hard to forget come November and December.


As Billy begins attempting to get his life back on track, he finds unlikely help from boxing trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker, Black Nativity) and social worker Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris, Skyfall). Whitaker isn’t the usual Mickey/Mr. Miyagi mentor and is more of a life coach attempting to get Billy to face his demons. Harris can never get enough work and she’s a soothing calming presence onscreen. McAdams, as usual, is a tremendous bright spot in any role.

Fuqua, who has never shied away from violence in his films, paints the sport less as ‘the sweet science’ and more a brutal clash of gladiators where the real consequences are felt long after the fight is over. The final clash with Billy and Miguel was the kind of epic battle we were anticipating with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. At times, the fight camerawork is too close and the scenes from Billy’s POV are more disorienting than impactful.

At two hours, the film is paced just right and manages not to overstay its welcome. Sutter goes for the emotional gut punch one time too many in a scene the feels a little too manipulative in trying to make the audience grab for their Kleenex yet again. It’s definitely not needed as there’s more than enough heartstring-tugging scenes already thanks in part to the final score by the late James Horner.


The Weinstein Company might have released Southpaw a few months too soon. It could have been a real contender if it debuted in November. Even if it doesn’t get its just due come award season, this is a late summer surprise worth climbing into a theater seat to see.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Credit: The Weinstein Company

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  • keith

    sounds good but thanks to this Ahole

    I dont even know if i will step in a movie today or this weekend. I know my wife wont for a min and why she likes being a home body. I sick of these domestic terrorism. He is already getting a pat on the a ss about his mental issues and blah blah. Yet he was allowed to get guns.. hmmm.

    sorry man. ish is two close to home as im only 50 miles away and go to this town to get away drink, shop, watch movies at times. I been to this theater before. I honestly hate going back to places where tragic events happen. ( new orleans withstanding, thats a second home to me)

    the movie sounds interesting though.

  • 49erfan

    Jeffrey this was a Good review. I didn’t like 50 cents role but the characters were realistic. I did like that the director/writer made sure the movie wasn’t a total fantasy story with just a big finale like most boxing movies. Some of the scenes were pretty bloody so if you’re squeamish beware. I hope this will be one of the films nominated for Oscars though.

  • There really needs to be something lawmakers can do to make getting guns harder. This kinda stuff is just happening way too often.
    It was good. Worth checking out for sure.

  • Thanks 49erfan! I liked that he didn’t shy away from how brutal boxing can be and making Billy try to go less bull in a China shop with his technique.
    I’ll have Jake Gyllenhaal for sure on my consideration list!

  • Katz

    Some of the advance clips, really show this boxer has spiritual suffering so heavy, it could fit into a von Trier movie. I tried to find out but couldn’t, how Forest Whitaker after slumming a bit, came to give such a buzzed performance in a small role. He even radiates a sexy, sensual wisdom like never before!

  • He had taken a few underwhelming roles, but he’s really outstanding in this one even with a limited amount of screen time.

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