Southpaw: Not Quite ‘Phenomenal,’ But Gyllenhaal Delivers a Knockout Performance

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“The Italian Stallion.”

“The Raging Bull.”

And now, “The Great.” As far as nicknames go, Billy “The Great” Hope is a little lackluster in the creativity department, but articulation isn’t really his thing anyway.

Despite depicting something brutal (or possibly because of it), boxing films, like war movies, continue to be made due to the sheer fact that they can engage a mass audience (myself included – don’t think this a soapbox speech). This fascination with films that celebrate the endurance of the human spirit (because hopefully this is what attracts the audience rather than the face-value brutality) has led to a highly entertaining catalog of fight films that includes the Rocky series, Raging Bull, The Fighter, Warrior (not boxing, but still great), Cinderella Man, and too many others to list here. It’s this human spirit that drives Southpaw from start to finish.

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While it’s not the greatest film ever made, and probably not even the greatest fight film ever made, Southpaw comes in swinging and lasts the full 12 rounds.

Boxer Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the world light-heavyweight champion that seems to have it all – a perfect record, a perfect home, and a perfect family. This would be quite an accomplishment for anyone. But for Hope, who came up through family services and spent time in and out of jail, it’s an incredible turnaround.

The product of a Hell’s Kitchen state ward, it is here at a young age that Hope meets his wife and close-knit circle of friends. It also seems to be here that Hope develops his boxing mentality, which serves a dual purpose for the way he copes with life: get beaten down, almost to the point of breaking, and then unleash the built up anger.

From the get-go, Hope’s rock and emotional center is his childhood love, his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Everything he does is for Maureen and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), to provide a better life than the one he thinks he got. And, for the most part, he succeeds for a while.

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But, simply put, anger’s a bitch. It’s not something that you can turn on in isolated incidents like a boxing match. Ultimately, despite the blame he spreads around, and there is certainly plenty to go around, it’s this anger that leads him to lose everything he cares about. In an instant, an out-of-the-ring run-in with top challenger Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) turns into a tragic accident, with Hope losing his wife and the will to carry on.

As his destructive tendencies unfold, Hope’s dealt a further blow that sends him reeling: his daughter Leila is placed in child protective services, just as he was, until he can prove himself a fit father. At this point, Hope has hit rock bottom, and just continued digging.

For Hope, the only chance he has to crawl his way out and get back what’s left of his family is to turn toward the only thing he’s ever known — once a fighter, always a fighter. With the help of trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), Hope embarks on a collision course with Escobar to set up a clash that has all the makings of a grudge match. The only question left to ask is what will he do with his anger?

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Written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield), Southpaw is a script that would probably have fallen a bit flat with a different cast. It’s bogged down, at times, by over-the-top dialogue and the obligatory metaphors showing how boxing isn’t actually about throwing punches, but something else, something greater.

On that same note, and I don’t say this lightly, even with director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) at the helm, this isn’t nearly the same film with a different cast. Certainly, Fuqua brings a visceral quality to the film and takes an interesting approach to filming some of the boxing sequences, but the framing and angle for me – while purposefully disorienting – are somewhat ill-used.

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So, all of that said, let’s get into the cast. Billy Hope is a little bit Jake La Motta, Jim Braddock, and, in the end, Rocky Balboa. He’s emotionally self-destructive with an uncontrolled temper, he becomes a shell of his former self, and he has to fight his way back to the top as somewhat of an underdog trying to go the distance for self-respect. While Sutter and Fuqua helped create this character on paper, Gyllenhaal convincingly brings him to life in a way few others likely could.

He’s more than an actor playing a broken boxer. Throughout the film, you find yourself believing this could be his life. You feel his pain, physical and emotional. The transformation is every bit as impressive as his turn in Nightcrawler, with a human side that was deliberately missing in that role.

As a young actress opposite Gyllenhaal, Laurence holds her own, taking Leila through the swings in emotion expected of a child who has lost both of her parents in some capacity over such a short span. McAdams and Whitaker again show why they’ve been employed so steadily, and even 50 Cent is believable as the sleazy promoter Jordan Mains.

Definitely a film you have to go into wanting to like, Southpaw will deliver if you let it.

P.S. – Don’t sleep on the soundtrack, which features Eminem’s new single “Phenomenal.”

3.5/5 reels

R

124 min

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence

US Release: July 24, 2015, Fuqua Films, Escape Artists, The Weinstein Company

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