Southpaw mirrors the sport of boxing in much more than the literal sense. The strongest aspects of the film are the actions depicted within the squared circle. Outside of the ring, many of the plot points and storylines are all too reminiscent of a boxer’s trademark flurry of punches. If you’ve seen them enough times, you can spot them coming from a mile away. However, most of them are supported by accurate finesse and hard-hitting emotion. Thanks to a magnetic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and consistent direction by Antoine Fuqua, Southpaw generally succeeds as a heartfelt story of redemption.
Light-heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man of two halves. Within the confines of a boxing ring, he’s a fierce warrior seemingly immune to physical pain. On the outside, he’s a devoted husband and father with the soft-spoken tendencies of Rocky Balboa. Both halves come to a crossroads when Hope is given the choice between a multi-fight contract by his manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) or settling down by his wife (Rachel McAdams). Hope’s dilemma reaches an abrupt and tragic circumstance when his wife is accidentally killed during a charity dinner. From there, his life quickly descends into a nightmare. He loses custody of his daughter, his boxing riches evaporate, and he is left a broken man. After taking a job cleaning up a gym in his old stomping grounds of New York, he quickly gains the attention of gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). Wills seizes the opportunity to both train Hope for a comeback and to provide him the energy necessary to rekindle his personal life and relationship with his newly distant daughter.
I once read a quote which said, “There are only a few stories–but there are infinite ways to tell them.” Southpaw is by no means a game changer in the subgenre of boxing films like Raging Bull or Rocky. Given the insurmountable legacy of those two films, it’s nearly impossible for Southpaw to transcend the subgenre. With that said, the structure of the movie suffers at times from erratic pacing and some shortcuts taken in the screenplay. Even at a runtime of slightly more than two hours, it doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it potentially could have been. Billy’s struggle to rebuild his life is given approximately the same amount of time as his tumultuous decline. The events depicted within the film aren’t as effectively dispersed as I would have liked. Perhaps with some additional scenes or transitions to showcase the passage of time, I wouldn’t have had an issue with this.
I am usually not a big fan of Antoine Fuqua as a director. Oftentimes, I find his main characters’ overtly macho demeanours distracting and difficult to take seriously. Both he and screenwriter Kurt Sutter generally strike a happy balance between machismo and drama. The sequences depicting Billy’s upbringing on the streets of New York are effectively dark and surprising. It’s in the clichéd plotlines and innumerable shots showcasing masculine sweat and anger where Southpaw reverts back to the Fuqua tropes I usually groan at. Sutter, who is best known for Sons of Anarchy, isn’t always keen with the dialogue. There are some cheesy lines scattered throughout the film, but it’s written well enough to continuously keep you invested.
Speaking of investment, the success of Southpaw stems from another outstanding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Much like Nightcrawler, his physical transformation and intensity reaffirm his position as one of our finest actors working today. Not only does he evoke the physicality needed for a hardened boxer, he also shines in the quieter moments of the film. The two halves of Billy Hope I described earlier feel distinct and almost like two different people inhabiting the same body. It’s a testament to his ability that I was fully attached to his struggle to rise from the ashes. Co-star Forest Whitaker provides a solid foundation for Billy to restructure his life and doesn’t simply come off as the grizzled trainer archetype one might expect.
I’m normally not one to lavish praise on child actors, but I was blown away by Oona Laurence’s portrayal of Billy’s daughter Leila. All of the scenes where she projects anger and frustration towards her father carry a sense of realism I wasn’t expecting going in. There are just a few moments where the dialogue seems a little bit too adult for someone of her age. That’s a minor complaint and doesn’t detract in any way from her performance. The performances are a prime example of how a film like Southpaw can compensate for a cliché-ridden story. The actors help bring out more heart and emotion than what is presented on the page.
In addition to the great performances, the boxing scenes depicted within the film are well constructed and shot. Fuqua uses a variety of shot compositions to heighten the impact of each subsequent punch. There’s also an emotional heart within the film that exceeds any of Fuqua’s previous films. That’s more than enough for me to give Southpaw an enthusiastic review. Despite my criticisms of the straightforward plot and rushed central character arc, it doesn’t feel like a cash grab or a showcase for the main star. It’s a welcome form of relief after a month and a half of being beaten down by sub-par blockbusters such as Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys.