Dir: Antoine Fuqua
Writer(s): Kurt Sutter
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Miguel Gomez, Skylan Brooks, Beau Knapp, and Naomie Harris
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
Everyone loves a great redemption story and director Antoine Fuqua with first-time feature film writer Kurt Sutter (FX’s Sons of Anarchy) have bought just that to us with Southpaw. The film goes through the motions and even hits the usual clichés we see in usual comeback stories, but it’s the performances by lead Jake Gyllenhaal and the direction of Fuqua that keep the movie enjoyable and powerful.
The film starts with Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) beating a boxing opponent retaining his victory record. When doing press, an up-and-comer boxer Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Gomez) taunts Billy saying he wants a shot at him. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams) worries about Billy and tells him he should take a break and spend time with her and their daughter Leila (Laurence). Billy considers it, but Escobar continues to taunt Billy at a gala and the two go at it. In the chaos, Maureen gets shot and dies leaving Billy alone and going on a tailspin that eventually ends up with Billy losing everything and putting Leila in child services.
However, not wanting to lose his daughter, he slowly tries to clean up his act and goes to a local gym that is run by a former boxer, Tick Willis (Whitaker), who reluctantly agrees to let Billy train at the gym. Eventually, Billy gets a chance to get back in the game and possibly get Leila back if he takes on one huge fight.
One of the things that bothered me, as well as others, is the fact that the first trailer gives away that McAdams’s Maureen dies. It’s one of the pivotal plot points in the movie and essentially starts off the real story of Billy’s rise after everything is taken from him. It probably would have been hard to get around it, since it does happen early in the film, but it did take away a little bit from the scene, especially even more, because the actual scene is really strong. Also, if you go in thinking to see a lot of boxing action in Southpaw, you’ll probably be a little disappointed. There is some great boxing action in the film, which I’ll get to in a little bit, but Southpaw is a drama through-and-through. In fact, it is a bit hard to watch sometimes. Not because it’s bad, but because Billy is constantly having to push through both physical beatings and emotional beatings. If Sutter was trying to prove how resilient Billy is as a boxer and a person, he succeeds for the most part, although it takes some time to get to that point.
However, the only reason is works is because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. Make no mistake, this is Gyllenhaal’s movie and is one of the only reason the film works so well. Gyllenhaal has pulled out some great performances as of late and Southpaw is no different. He is able to bring out every emotion in Billy that makes us sympathize, root and even relate to him.
The rest of the cast is hit-or-miss. Forest Whitaker’s no-nonsense Tick Willis is tail-made for the actor and nails every scene he’s in, with a standout scene near the end of the movie. Rachel McAdams, who doesn’t have a ton of screen time, still manages to bring a nice mix of charm, attitude, and toughness to Maureen. Oona Laurence’s Leila Hope has her moments to shine, but is otherwise an outside driving force to Billy’s actions throughout the movie. However, make no mistake, when she’s onscreen, it is great to see – in a non-creepy way.
“50 Cent” plays a greedy and morally questionable manager who you’ll love to hate, but think “yeah, this kind of guy probably exists in real life.” Miguel Gomez as Escobar pretty much disappears through the middle of the movie, and only pops up at the end of the movie for the unavoidable final fight of the movie. It’s no fault to Gomez, he’s only doing the best he can with what he’s given. The movie isn’t about him, it’s about Billy and his road to redemption. Unfortunately, Naomie Harris gets the short end of the stick playing a social worker assigned to Billy and Leila’s case. Harris does okay, but an actress of her talent and caliber being reduced to a small supporting role kind of sucks.
Like I said, Southpaw is a drama through-and-through, but the boxing scenes are great to sit back and enjoy. Fuqua really tries to put us the viewer in the ring with the characters and what is going in their head. The boxing scenes feel almost raw and brutal and are probably some of the best scenes in the movie, camera-work wise.
All in all, Southpaw feels like a familiar structure and fits into some clichés and common threads in other redemption/underdog films we’ve seen in the past. However, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance and Fuqua’s direction in some of the bigger scenes make the film pop and standout in its own right. Southpaw may not the easiest movie to sit through, because of the drama, but it is highly enjoyable at the end of the day.
4 out of 5