Southpaw opens with a dramatic fight, which Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) appears to be losing, badly. Billy’s taking punch after punch square in the face, enough punches to make you wonder when, not if, he’s going to be knocked out. As the tension builds, so does our protagonist’s rage. Eventually, his anger explodes and he demolishes his opponent. Billy wins again and retires to the locker room to face the reality of his broken face and apprehensive wife.
Billy Hope’s story sounds familiar from the get go. He’s the inner-city kid that led a hard life, but made something of himself using his own two hands. It’s a familiar narrative, but Southpaw injects enough modern-day action into this version that the story rolls along at a swift, adrenaline-filled pace.
(This is only considered a spoiler if you haven’t watched the official trailer above.)
Billy’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is an anxious woman. She’s afraid for her husband and her family. She knows the toll her husband’s chosen career path is taking on his body and, even more importantly, the toll it’s taking on his mind. Maureen wants her husband to retire. She thinks they’ve built enough of a boxing empire and it is now time to bow out gracefully and enjoy it all, together. At first Billy is reluctant to think of a life without the sport that made sense of his unrelenting anger, but soon he begins to see that Maureen is right. He wants to be around for his family and he’s prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure that is exactly what happens.
Unfortunately for everyone, Billy’s anger gets the best of him during a scuffle, which erupts when rival boxer, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) offends Maureen. As Billy and Mo (Maureen) attempt to leave a sports gala event, they cross paths with Escobar. The insults begin to fly and Instead of ignoring him, Billy fights back and Maureen gets caught in the crossfire. Mo winds up shot and Billy’s life slips into a tailspin.
Hope’s lost his money, his championship, his job, his house and even his daughter. He’s been stripped of everything that ever defined him and he’s not sure if he can come back from that. Billy has relied on his anger to get him through everything, well, his anger and his wife Maureen. Now that she’s gone, all he can think about is what’s missing. Billy loses sight of his daughter’s pain and watches helplessly as Child Protective Services takes her from him. Southpaw is the story of Billy Hope’s fight against the world. Southpaw is a study in survival.
While the performances in this film are strong, they weren’t all as convincing as they could have been. Rachel McAdams’ dramatic range is impressive, but her character (Mo) still feels like a bad fit. Nevertheless, her death scene had me tearing up as my heart raced. There’s something to be said for an actor who can bring emotion up and into your throat, on demand.
Forest Whitaker is flawless as Hope’s trainer Tick Wills. He brought back memories of Rocky’s right hand man Mickey and injected a beguiling depth into Tick Wills despite the aforementioned lack of development. Oona Lawrence, who plays Billy Hope’s daughter Leila, was also outstanding. This little girl packs a serious punch when it comes to acting out dramatic scenes and she straight tore my heart out several times during this film. Finally, there’s 50 Cent as Jordan Manis, I would have liked to see more of him, but again, since the movie was light on character development, all I got was an intriguing outline of a greedy manager, but not much else.
Jake Gyllenhaal brings us a hero underdog with anger issues, a foul mouth, and an attitude to match. He’s a broken man looking for redemption and struggling to feel human again. His performance starts out a little rough, but culminates in a powerful expression of loss, vulnerability, humility and rage. Gyllenhaal is simply captivating.
Intense performances aside, the fight scenes were my absolute favorite thing about Southpaw. They’re exquisite. Great care was obviously put into choreographing and executing these viciously realistic bouts. As a boxing fan, the effort was noted and highly appreciated. Being that the major drawback in this film is the light character development, Antoine Fuqua (Director) relies a little too heavily on cinematic formulas to communicate back-stories for his characters. Plainly put, at the end of the film, I was left wanting more. I didn’t want to be told that Billy’s rage came from growing up a forgotten foster kid, I wanted instead to develop an understanding of it and feel why, for myself. After all, that rage built Billy Hope’s life and then subsequently tore it to shreds. All I wanted was to understand how that evolved within Billy and not just how it played out around him. I didn’t get that, but what I got I did enjoy.
Despite Southpaw’s shortcomings, it’s an intense and gratifying time. This movie is, above all else, a boxing movie. More than other films, it explores the often forgotten side of the fight: the broken faces, busted bodies, fading memories, and heartless business partners. Southpaw gives us a look into the soul of boxing and it’s a gritty view. The story of Billy Hope’s fight to reclaim his title, identity, and family is engaging all the way through. If you want a rush of adrenaline while getting a dose of drama, Southpaw just might be what you’re looking for.
Southpaw – B-
B- =This is a pretty good time and you should give it a whirl. You never know, you might enjoy it more than you think going in. It has its pitfalls, but overall worth your time.