Southpaw (2015)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Contains spoilers.

Antoine Fuqua has a particular style that's equal parts gritty, down to earth, and in your face. It's that style in Training Day that helped win so much acclaim. Southpaw takes that style and pushes it to new limits. Fuqua's also good at pulling fantastic acting from his stars, as evidenced by Denzel Washington's Academy Award from their collaboration. With those things being said, the stories themselves could use some improvements. From King Arthur's too-familiar historical tropes to Olympus Has Fallen's action base, his stories all have some amount of been-there-done-that. And that's certainly the case with Southpaw.

Southpaw is the story of undefeated boxer Billy Hope, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He's at the top of his career after winning another title; his wife and daughter, Maureen and Leila, are healthy, happy, and provided for; he's on top of the world. But everything is not perfect for the Hopes, and through their troubles Maureen has always steered Billy down a good path, making plans and decisions for him. So, after winning his latest fight and sustaining a lasting eye injury, Maureen wants him to, at the very least, take some time off before fighting again. But we learn pretty quickly that Billy is destined to box. In fact, it's really all he's good at.

When Billy lets himself be goaded into attacking Miguel, another boxer, at a charity event, things quickly get out of hand and Maureen winds up getting shot. She dies and things fall apart. Billy starts abusing alcohol and drugs, and falls into a deep depression. But once again, he lets himself be goaded into something: he signs a new, multi-fight contract with his manager, Jordan Mains who's played by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. During the first fight, Billy loses it and headbutts the ref, earning him a year-long suspension, along with a lawsuit and related fines. Without boxing, and with all the legal trouble, things just get worse. He starts carrying a gun, drives under the influence, and eventually fucks up enough that child services takes Leila away. He loses the house, the cars, and just about everything else. So he tries to follow the court's program: he finds a new gym, stays clean, tries to get his act together.

 

His new coach, Titus "Tick" Wills played by Forest Whitaker, does something for him that's never been done in a sports movie before: takes him back to basics. Eventually, through hard work and determination (and some sleazy finagling from Jordan Mains), Billy's given a chance to redeem himself. He's going to get a shot at the title, fighting against Miguel, the same scumbag who caused all of his problems to begin with.

If it sounds like there are some clichés in there... there are. It mashes together the most overused bits of drama and sports to make a comeback film that's all punch and no finesse. It's the typical hero story: he loses everything but finds a new mentor who he bonds with, works hard to improve himself, learns some valuable lessons on the road to redeem himself, and earns back some of what he lost. The most emotional parts are also the most predictable, but that doesn't make them any less touching. The performances sell the emotion with gusto. Gyllenhaal shines as Billy Hope. From the highs to the lows, Bill comes through as a tortured soul. He's flawed, he's gullible, but he's also hard-working and compassionate. Gyllenhaal brings Billy to life in the most realistic possible way, coming away from the screen and pulling sympathy out of you. There really is no other word to describe his performance, besides phenomenal. The rest of the cast hangs on Gyllenhaal's coattails. Forest Whitaker does a good job as the tough coach, even if the script takes a perfectly generic role and tries to make it the tiniest bit "quirky" with an offbeat background. Rachel McAdams is a little wishy washy, she can play the romantic lead with aplomb, but her Jersey girl act is left wanting. Oona Laurence brings the movie home with a surprisingly earnest performance as Leila, tugging the heartstrings as a lost, confused girl who's angry at the world. The forced emotion might be a bit too stale for some, but I was certainly sold on it.

Beyond the amazing performances there isn't a whole lot to say. Quite a few of the shots are disjointed, often at odds with previous shots. Sometimes that style can be interesting, even fun, but not this time. Combined with a modern flair by emulating HBO or Pay-Per-View the fourth wall gets broken and the little logo in the corner barely hides it. Sometimes, Gyllenhaal's tattoos are a little too obviously fake, but the makeup is stunningly well done, and his long-lasting eye injury is a touch of great character.

Raging Bull this is not, but Gyllenhaal carries this drama with a visceral, bloody performance. In no way is this an original movie, but it packs a punch nonetheless, and it'll keep your blood pumping until the predictable conclusion with fingers crossed that Billy can triumphantly reunite with his daughter.

 
 

TL;DR: Southpaw, as a boxing drama, sports all the clichés of the genre, tugging you along it's bruising journey. The performances are as "phenomenal" as Eminem's title track, even if the story isn't up to par. There's a lot of emotion shoved into the 123 minutes, some earnest and some not, but it plays well. Billy Hope's road is torturous and depressing, often predictable, but Gyllenhaal's portrayal, with Whitaker's support, is stunning. He may not actually be a southpaw, but he certainly carries the film and entertains.

  • Acting – 16 / 20
  • Story – 8 / 20
  • Cinematography – 8 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 7 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 6 / 10
  • Drama/Sports – 7 / 10
  • Other – 10 / 10

Grade D = 62 / 100