It must be hard to make a movie about boxing, let alone an original one. Movies like Rocky and Raging Bull have practically mapped out the blueprint for boxing movies: show boxer, have him struggle, train for a big fight, win big fight, end movie. That’s probably why so few boxing movies are made, but that isn’t stopping Antoine Fuqua. The director of Training Day and last year’s surprise hit The Equalizer has teamed up with writer Kurt Sutter (creator of TV’s Sons of Anarchy) to bring the world another boxing movie. So the question is, how much entertainment can they pull out of something tried and true? Quite a bit, actually.
Southpaw follows Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the light-heavyweight champion of the boxing world, undefeated and nearly immune to punches. Soft-spoken and temperamental, Billy’s life is a dream come true (especially for him, an orphan who grew up rough in the Bronx). He lives luxuriously, shares his wealth with his longtime buddies and earns major money from his fights thanks to his manager Jordan Mains (rapper 50 Cent). But Billy’s inner-self is kept sane by his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Jordan wants Billy to sign a contract having him fight three times a year for $30 million total, but Maureen wants Billy to take some time off before his punch-drunk attitude gives him long-term consequences. Billy thinks it over as he and Maureen attend a charity dinner, which is also where a possible title contender (Miguel Gomez) happens to be. An altercation occurs (the contender says he’ll take Billy’s “bitch” and belt) and Maureen gets shot by one of the contender’s crew by accident. After she dies, Billy’s life crumbles all around him: he throws a fight, headbutts a referee, gets suspended, loses all his riches and Leila is taken away from him. With almost nothing to his name and life seemingly hopeless (no pun intended), Billy moves back to the hard streets of New York City and gets a job cleaning up a gym. He ends up getting the attention of the gym’s owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a trainer who sees Billy down on his luck and wants to help him out. He trains Billy and builds his confidence, while Billy tries to rebuild a relationship with his daughter and his own life.
If you like boxing movies, you’ll probably really like Southpaw. It’s plot, tone and style is very common with recent boxing movies like The Fighter and other sports-based redemption stories. Billy’s tale is that of a rise-and-fall-and-rise again, and it’s all surprisingly fast. The pacing isn’t bad, but the events of the movie all seem to happen over a quick period of time. Billy rises from the ashes almost as quickly as he fell from grace, which was probably done to keep the attention of audience in the film’s 123 minute running time. Maybe if the movie was longer, Billy’s struggle could have more time to leave a better impact on the audience. Regardless, Kurt Sutter’s script is solid enough to keep the audience invested. He occasionally goes for cliches, but also manages to pull out some more darker scenes using Billy’s street-upbringing. Fuqua also knows how to stage boxing matches as well, using quick-cuts and a variation of close-ups and slowed-down wide shots. His close-ups are impressive, seeming like he put GoPro cameras on the gloves of the fighters so the audience can feel the impact of every jab.
Where the movie lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in performances. For the past four years, Jake Gyllenhaal has been on a quest to turn himself into a serious leading man. He’s been around for a while in great movies (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac), but he’s bounced around from romantic comedies (Love and Other Drugs), blockbuster action movies (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and tepid drama (Brothers, Proof). But ever since 2011’s Source Code, Gyllenhaal has been on a career high with top-notch performances in Prisoners, Enemy and End of Watch, culminating with his first Oscar nomination in last year’s Nightcrawler. So does his performance in Billy Hope manage to knock out the creepy news vulture Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler? No, but damn it Gyllenhaal tries. He’s intense in the boxing scenes (at times literally getting beaten to a bloody pulp), but he sells the performance in the quieter moments. When Billy’s not shouting at his opponents with blood coming out of his head, he mumbles and slurs his speech. He’s quiet and clearly struggling to understand his crumbling life around him, with his support system gone and nothing to lift him up. Then again, it’d be a pretty hard blow to take if one lost Rachel McAdams. Her New York accent is believable and the chemistry she has with Gyllenhaal is endearing. When she’s killed off, it’s tragic for Billy and the audience. That’s the stamp McAdams leaves on the movie. Forest Whitaker is solid as the stern trainer bringing Billy back from the brink. It might seem mean to knock a child actor, but Oona Laurence seems out of place in Southpaw. She and Gyllenhaal have a scene where she says she hates him and wishes he died, and it seems the dialogue is too adult for her. Even as she’s screaming, crying and slapping Gyllenhaal in the face, it’s not entirely believable. 50 Cent’s character is also tossed to the side by the end of the movie, starting as the sleazy manager abandoning Billy for a more profitable fighter, but then he just fades into the background.
Besides some great performances and well staged boxing matches (plus a solid soundtrack overseen by Eminem, who was originally supposed to be Billy Hope), Southpaw is another (if not rushed) redemption sports movie. To his credit, Fuqua has put more heart in Southpaw than in any other movie he’s made in his career. Aside from the macho-atmosphere from boxing, Southpaw is driven by emotion (especially that of Jake Gyllenhaal). Even if the plot is something out of a copy machine, most of Southpaw is never phoned in. It’s a welcome shot of dramatic entertainment driven by real feeling instead of CGI.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars