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.
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.
He’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.
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