Southpaw surpasses the expectations of this reviewer
Southpaw is the latest film from Antoine Fuqua who is probably best known for his collaboration with Denzel Washington on Training Day (2001). This time Jake Gyllenhaal is the undefeated light heavyweight champion of the worlllllldddd, Billy Hope, who seems to be at the height of his powers after another victory at Madison Square Garden. However his wife Maureen (Mo), played by Rachel McAdams, is concerned he’s taking too many punches and needs to take a break. A devastating turn of events leaves Billy having to learn to take responsibility for himself and unable to cope he descends into a downward spiral of self destruction. Can he rebuild his life and in the process return to the top of his sport?
While Southpaw is billed as a boxing movie it is at its heart a tale of a man whose entire life has been structured for him from his childhood in the State care system to his wife who made all the business decisions and raised his daughter. That comfort blanket is pulled from under him and Billy lacks the emotional maturity to deal with his changed circumstances. Not knowing how to react he gets angry and lashes out at the world and it is only when he hits rock bottom having unleashed his pent up emotions is he able to take stock and move forward.
Gyllenhaal carries on from where he left off in Nightcrawler (2014) giving us another fully committed performance. Forest Whitaker plays the role of a gym owner (Tick Willis) who takes Billy under his wing and is fantastic at playing the slightly crumpled, hidden superstar trainer, just waiting to be talked back into working with professional boxers again. In my reviews I like to point out top notch child acting performances because of the number of stinkers in otherwise good films I have endured over the years. So here’s a shout out to Oona Laurence as Leila, Billy’s daughter, who does that I’m probably smarter than both of my parents thing. Truth be told she is in many ways more mature than Billy but at the end of the day she still wants her dad back.
The film does have a few little niggles that bothered me. The main one was the disappearance of another character Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) who is supposed to be Billy’s nemesis in the ring following the ‘incident’. There is no mention of him during the entire second act and when the hype is supposed to be building for the final showdown there is no sense of the media frenzy you would expect before the fight. You can hear references from the boxing commentators but this appears to be largely ignored. I put this down to time pressure and in cutting the film down to two hours. I presume Fuqua wanted to keep the focus on Billy so sacrificed a little character development elsewhere. I have heard some criticism that Southpaw does nothing to deviate from some of the classic boxing motifs … and? When a movie is as well executed as this a little lack of originality in the script means nothing as most stories have been told in one guise or another.
Southpaw succeeded for me because over the course of just two hours I felt like I fully understand Billy and why he behaved the way he did. A decent bloke undone by a situation he had never had the chance to prepare for. Job well done, my rating 4/5.