Believe In Hope.
Southpaw literally opens on just that, the ‘left hand’ or the ‘south paw’ of boxing champion Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he prepares to enter the ring at Madison Square Garden. It turns out that this very same ‘paw’ has lifted Hope from his rough orphanage upbringing and turned him into a prize fighting hero who holds an undefeated record as the World Light Heavyweight Champion, that’s brought with it fame and fortune. But how much more can Billy’s body take? Hope’s beautiful and loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) pleads with him to stop the fighting — or at least take a break — so that he can spend more time with her and their bright daughter, Lelia (Oona Laurence). Billy’s lifelong manager Jordan Mains (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson) nudges him in a different direction, urging Hope to sign a three-year, three-fight, deal with HBO for a whopping 30 million dollars. Taunted by a cocky young Columbian upstart, Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez), Billy’s anger and rage issues get the better of him whilst at a charity function, where resulting violence leads to tragedy for Maureen. With the heartbreaking loss of his wife, Hope falls into a self-destructing downward spiral. The descent continues when Hope gets dethroned from the ring which costs him his fortune and custody of his little girl, who is taken by Child Protection Services after Hope is deemed as an unfit parent. Now back at rock bottom, Billy looks to repair his career and win back the trust of his daughter by teaming up with ex-professional boxer and coach Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker), who looks to teach the volatile young Hope how to piece together his crumbled life.
There are literally no surprises in Southpaw, a familiar tale of redemption told anew, as the feature doesn’t steer too far from other sporting clichés. Recycling moments from classics such as Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), director Antoine Fuqua, Training Day (2001), does the best he can with this tired worn-out formula, which plays on the idea of the stereotypical hyper-aggressive male boxer — however, it’s Fuqua’s steady hand that holds the picture from collapsing under the weight of its many genre conventions. Working from an original story by Kurt Sutter, the creator of television’s Sons of Anarchy (2008), Southpaw looks at the world of professional boxing and the hardships of lower-financial class America, infusing traditional melodrama with today’s modern grittiness. Needles to say, the narrative is missing gaps in logic and introduces some interesting concepts but doesn’t fully follow through with any of them; Maureen’s concern that her husband’s career may potentially cause him to become ‘punch-drunk’ is brought in but never referred to again while Billy appears to be at ease when he discovers that his friend and former manager, Jordan, has teamed up with his rival Miguel. Given that Hope loses Maureen to a bullet, it’s also frustrating to note that the screenplay set ups confusion as to whom actually pulled the trigger but never gives us a concrete answer, as the incident is quickly forgotten with the plot shifting gears and moving in another direction. Then there’s the case of Hope’s bankruptcy; we see Billy hand out Rolex watches to his posse and win a pay-per-view match, then see him penniless in about eight weeks time, which seems a little far-fetched if you ask me.
Originally considered as an unofficial follow-up to the movie 8 Mile (2002), the character of Billy Hope and his plunge to the bottom was based on rapper Eminem, who was initially set to star, with his own real-life struggle — the death of his best friend, Proof, and relationship with his daughter Hailie Jade — being the key inspiration for the film’s storyline. When the musician dropped out of the project to focus on an album, Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler (2014), caught the attention of filmmakers and was signed on to star. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal is impeccable as the ripped Billy Hope, delivering another transformative ‘knock out’ performance, which saves the flick from its moments of patchiness; with a shaved head, prominent ink work, a perennially banged-up mug and 200 pounds of ferocious power, Gyllenhaal — who apparently studied Miguel Cotto’s boxing style in order to develop the character — packs one heck of a punch! It’s hard to honestly imagine anyone else in the part.
Serving as a mentor and ultimately a savior for Billy, Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog (1999) — one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors — does an admirable job of shaping Titus, the archetypal humble but tough trainer who’s there to guide Billy when no one else would, adding his own singular depth and compassion to the role. Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005), or ‘fiddy’ as a friend of mine likes to call him, mumbles through the bulk of his dialogue, but has decent enough screen presence to receive a ‘pass’ here. Elsewhere, 12 year-old stage and screen actress Oona Laurence, Lamb (2015), does a tremendous job as Hope’s daughter, Lelia, who goes toe-to-toe with the beefed up Gyllenhaal, and comes off as poised and confident while acting alongside the seasoned star. Naomie Harris, Skyfall (2012), also does a great job as Angela Rivera, the caring social worker who aids Billy repair his relationship with Leila; similarly, Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes (2009), sticks out in her small but pivotal role as Billy’s wife Maureen. Keep a lookout for Rita Ora, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), who shows up in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ scene as Miguel’s partner, Maria Escobar.
Director Fuqua — who’s evidently a dedicated boxer himself and trains every day — seems more focused with the picture’s visual details rather than its narrative, which is mostly formula; if only Hope’s road to restitution were a different one. Using his typical lighting techniques — with the help of long-time cinematographer Mauro Fiore, Training Day (2001) — and an overabundance of close-ups that zoom in on our star’s painstakingly bloody faces, a lot of the drama feels forced, with Fuqua failing to take a step back from the camera in order to let his talented leads do their thing. Nonetheless, when it comes to the fight scenes, both the camerawork and choreography are outstanding, with Southpaw showcasing some of the genre’s most realistic, brutal, visceral and fierce boxing matches to date; one can almost taste and smell the sweat dripping off the fighters. Although a tad overlong and a smidgen undercooked, Southpaw finishes with a pulsating re-match finale that’s likely to please those who enjoy classic underdog movies. In addition, the music by James Horner, Titanic (1997) — his last ever score before losing his life in a tragic plane crash on June 22, 2015 — is pounding and dynamic, and melds well with the feature’s soundtrack, which comprises of artists such as Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Notorious B.I.G. and other hip-hop acts; its title track ‘Kings Never Die,’ performed by Eminem & Gwen Stefani, shares some uncanny parallels with Jake Gyllenhaal’s booming career and the sweltering roles that defy his body of work.
Second-rate storytelling aside, director Fuqua has successfully imbued an emotional tale about fatherhood and family into the framework of a vigorous, rousing boxing drama, a picture that exhibits plenty of heart, blood and tears, but lacks when it comes to brains. Spearheaded by another tour de force performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, along with a capable cast of secondary players, Southpaw is a by-the-numbers sports drama that highlights a rocky father-daughter journey as it veers towards a foreseeable homecoming. In the long line of slugfest cinema, Southpaw puts up a mighty good fight, as it focuses more on the man rather than the sport.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Southpaw is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia