Director Antoine Fuqua (2001’s Training Day) and Emmy-winning writer Kurt Sutter ( Sons of Anarchy), have crafted an emotionally jarring knockout with the fictional boxing picture Southpaw. It is another entry in a lengthy catalogue of films that call to mind director and star Sylvester Stallone’s Best Picture winner, Rocky, from 1976, and even though the style is distinctly that of the Hollywood motions (i.e. the inescapable montage sequences during the training sessions, the redemptive finale that we know as soon as we sit in the theater is coming, and a general narrative style that is indecipherable from most entries in these types of Sports features) Jake Gyllenhaal is so brutally commanding, believable and embodies the tormented once Middle Weight Champion Billy Hope, in a role originally written for the orchestrator of the incredible soundtrack: Eminem (along with late-cinematic composer James Horner whom this motion picture is dedicated), and the film is so unusually uplifting despite the aforementioned clichés that it doesn’t weigh the movie down as a whole as it would’ve in less capable hands.
Fuqua and Sutter continue these familiarities by focusing on Hope’s personal home life, how his past demons shatter him before he is triumphantly built up again, in a fashion that only furthers the commonplace cinematic notes found herein, but it doesn’t taint the impact the feature leaves (especially in a time when stirring underdog stories such as these are all but extinct from theater screens). With all that Hope goes through in Southpaw’s one hundred and twenty three minutes the familiar structure seems like a welcome comfort zone at times and after the initial criticism about it leaves our brains we realize this is the classic fashion such a tried and true tale as the one at the heart of Southpaw.
As previously mentioned, Southpaw tells the story of boxer Billy Hope. When the feature begins he has lost none of his past forty six fights, has a solid relationship with his wife, Maureen, (which is aptly played with strong charisma by Rachel McAdams) and his daughter, Leila, (which is played with striking range and incredible depth throughout by the young actress Oona Laurence) and is enjoying what he has worked so hard to build.
That is: until tragedy erupts after a fighter named Ramone (played with all the arrogance and un-likability the script calls for to make him the antagonist necessary in movies such as these) calls Hope out at an interview after what will prove to be his last win for some time. The events in this scene are wrenching, genuinely unexpected and heartbreaking, and Fuqua delivers an oddly effective style nowhere to be seen in the rest of the movie that feels like a 1950’s Gangster picture, and we are in the ring fighting for Gyllenhaal’s character throughout the rest of this cinematic work. It’s a manipulative plot device, to be sure, but it certainly helps us overlook the many such stratagems it utilizes from that point forward.
Southpaw also works as well as it does because Mauro Fiero’s cinematography is crisp, yet appropriately bleak and grim, and it makes the proceedings ring with even more authenticity. The motion picture calls to mind the gritty, character-driven dramas of this type from the 1970’s and early 1980’s (most notably Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull) that is all the more potent because, not only do the leads deliver impeccable performances, but much of the secondary cast (most notably Skylan Brooks as a youth who seems to be the only one outside of the owner, Tick Wills, who knows who recognizes the champion Gyllenhaal once was before his fall-out in the endlessly watchable scenes inside Wills’ Gym) are just as exceptional. With the cinematography and acting at the forefront of these visual elements: Southpaw becomes an example of many technical elements complimenting and coming together beautifully to create a distinctly rugged veneer that is so consistent throughout that one cannot help but admire it throughout.
The only out of place performance in the smaller roles is that of 50 Cent as Hope’s money hungry manager turned ex, Jordan Mains. 50 Cent’s acting is mediocre at best and he has about as much emotional range as he does subject matter in his music with a blank look on his face and an occasional raising of the eyebrow to dictate the emotion the role provides. Still, he isn’t exactly a blind spot for the film, he is a tolerable thespian, but one can’t help but think that he got the job because of his associations with the man coordinating the soundtrack.
Fuqua keeps the pace throughout exactly as we have come to expect from the manner of storytelling he adopts here. The first half is dedicated to Hope’s diminishing family life, his recklessness and the second hour is Gyllenhaal’s character reaching his lowest point and making his way back to the top. It’s pretty much what we anticipate as we sit in the theater waiting for the film to begin but, in retrospect, it does feel that they spent equal time on Hope as the person and as the fighter. This makes the proceedings well-rounded, even and gives the redemptive climax all the more punch despite the outcome being blazoned in our brains long before the opening seconds of the feature.
To further help matters, Sutter’s screenplay is solid writing. The work is literate, intelligent and, with the exception of Ramone as the one-dimensionally painted villain, it wants us to look at and not down at any of the characters on display. It presents people with hidden problems, such as Hope’s trainer Tick Wills (who is beautifully fleshed out and played with watchable conviction by Forrest Whitaker), but it never seems to exploit their woes to ring out unnecessary melodrama for the sake of the film being more emotional (an action far too many films of this nature take because they want to try to sentimentally overwhelm their audiences into submission) than it already is. It’s undeniable that Sutter was attempting to tell this tale in as unpretentious and accurate a fashion as possible and Southpaw is all the stronger because of it.
The duo of Fuqua and Sutter have created one of the better dramatic works of the year with Southpaw. It might fall several steps short of a masterpiece but it is compact, credible filmmaking which dares us to feel something in a time when most movies are only concerned with hammering you over the head with special effects and, in turn, running as far away from the reactions this wonderful feature openly embraces. Much of the subject matter can be seen as dispiriting but the overall result is anything but such an impression.
Southpaw reminds us of the importance of family without coming off as preachy or callous, it brings into play the bold, and as equally fled from subjects in most mainstream films anymore, topics of alcoholism, drug addiction, murder and not being granted the right to see your child without being bitter. Because it finds this right-footing and never seems to be shaking its head in frustration or wagging its finger at us, it makes it all the more easier to cheer for Hope’s big comeback and the film as a whole. Sure, it is often by the numbers but it is easy to forgive because so much of what we see on-screen is challenging without being off-putting, the on-screen jabs at sentiment are felt with so much more fury because they are rarely blown out of proportion and, primarily, because the film itself is so simple to enjoy.