Jul 272015
 
Southpaw Poster
Title: Southpaw
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal,
Forest Whitaker,
Rachel McAdams,
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson,
Genre: Sports, Drama
Runtime: 2 Hours 04 mins
Music: James Horner
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Certificate: US: R
UK: 15
Release Date: US: Jul 24 2015
UK: Jul 24 2015
See If You Like: The Fighter,
Warrior,
An emotional one-two…

 

After such as stunning turn in Nightcrawler it was difficult to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal pulling off anything quite as impressive and/or special quite so soon, but he has with Southpaw; an undeniably affecting drama/boxing movie which packs a huge one-two emotional punch, and sees Gyllenhaal deliver a fantastic, transformative, knockout performance yet again.

Starring as light-heavyweight champion boxer Billy Hope, Jake begins Southpaw on top of the world; celebrating another successful title defence with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife star currently starring in HBO’s True Detective Season 2) and loving daughter (Oona Laurence, Penny Dreadful); but quickly has his world turned upside-down when a fracas with a loud-mouthed prospective contender ends up with his wife being shot and killed, sending him into a downward spiral of depression which leads to the loss of his boxing licence, everything he owns, and the only thing he holds dear; his daughter.

Southpaw then becomes a tale of redemption where Hope has to start again, from the ground up; staying in a crummy apartment, working as a cleaner, and training at a low-rent gym; aiming to put his life back on track and prove to the court he can be responsible enough to be reunited with his daughter, and one day reclaim his title.

In some ways it reads like an average fight-film, with a touch of drama thrown in, but Southpaw is anything but average. With enough drama to make to make The Fighter look dull, completely believable characters, and waves of emotion throughout, it is a phenomenal film, and one which will have you reaching for a Kleenex more than once.

The death of Hope’s wife is an unsettling event for viewers in itself; an onscreen death which is given a good deal of time to play out and show the fear/love between the pair (it also helps we were given a little bit of time to get to know Mrs Hope before her tragedy, how caring she was, and see her brought to life by as proficient an actress as McAdams); it’s tough to watch Billy’s downward spiral, and downright heartbreaking when his daughter gets put into care (as are their subsequent interactions while she’s residing within the system); and there’s even emotional impact brought from outside, with Billy befriending some young kids at his new gym, and seeing the struggles of his reluctant, traditional, no-curse-word-rule-enforcing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace); meaning the background here isn’t simply filler between fights. If anything, boxing is the background in Southpaw; the drama outside the ring being even greater, and more affecting, than that inside the squared circle.

Yet that’s not to say Southpaw doesn’t get its boxing right. The first thing to hit you when watching is not only how well the boxing matches are shot, but how amazing Gyllenhaal looks; bulking up from his sickly thin turn in Nightcrawler to a truly ripped, beast-like, frame here, and embodying both the mindset, the habits, and the physicality of a professional fighter throughout the course of the film; a film which perfects its depiction of boxing with fantastic, well-shot, intense, believable, and engaging fights, uses known fighters for minor roles (like having Victor Ortiz have a minor sparring session with Hope), and aims to nail down a number of the fundamentals with its training sequences.

Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal Rachel McAdams

Training, and the approach of the entire film, also doesn’t fit with the usual boxing formula; as while a boxing movie would usually create a bad guy, give the hero a reason to fight, line it up, throw in a training montage and end on the big fight (and Southpaw does essentially follow the same tried-and-tested formula – and give us a small montage), who Billy’s battling isn’t as important as the struggles he’s going through; it’s all about his journey, overcoming his demons, and setting his life straight; something Gyllenhaal brings to life beautifully.

Every actor in Southpaw does a fantastic job; Rachel McAdams, for her limited time onscreen, was likable, believable (her accent was spot-on, and far more understated than many who attempt a New York turn), and it was a true shame to see her go; Forest Whitaker was excellent as Hope’s new mentor/ageing trainer with his own past and demons to battle (giving easily the best performance he has in years); Oona Laurence was fantastic as Billy’s young daughter (delivering an upsettingly believable showing as the grief-stricken, hurt, alone, and angry young girl which should be far beyond the reach of anyone at such a young age, but played with ease here); and even Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent was watchable as the money-driven promoter Jordan Mains (putting in one of the only watchable turns he’s ever delivered – far above Gun); though none compare to Jake Gyllenhaal.

An actor who’s becoming increasingly impressive as his career moves forward, Jake did a fantastic job here. Not only rising to the occasion physically, delivering excellent form within the ring, and knocking every emotional beat out of the park (or should that be to the mat?), but embodying the mannerisms and soul you might expect to find within an orphanage-raised fighter; from the accent, anger problems, intensity, ticks, and droopy eye to speech patterns, body-language, and wavering lip there wasn’t moment you didn’t believe Jake was a fighter. Jake wasn’t playing at being a boxer, he was a boxer. He was Billy Hope. And he was phenomenal.

Southpaw Jake Gyllenhaal 02

There’s also a lot of unseen talent hidden behind the ropes, and credit must be given to director/producer Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) for helming such an compelling and emotional movie, as well as James Horner for crafting a wonderfully understated score, Eminem for providing some killer soundtrack music (after originally being pegged to star in the leading role), and a huge dose of credit belongs to Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter; who served as screenwriter, came up with the story, and developed Southpaw originally to serve as a metaphor for part of Eminem’s life.

It’s a brilliant first feature to come from Sutter (who’s only other writing credits are on The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and upcoming TV show The Bastard Executioner), but as a first feature, and a sports movie, it does fall into some genre cliches pretty deeply; the bad-guy/reason/montage formula being prevalent, making obvious attempts to yank on the heart-strings at several intervals, and even using some tried-and-tested character moulds we’ve seen a dozen times before (boxer with anger problems, reluctant trainer, loud-mouthed cocky contender, shameless promoter, and even young kid with a dodgy home-life); meaning, if you look a little deeper, Southpaw brings nothing new to the genre.

What it does do however, is excel at everything it attempts within that genre. The boxing is brilliant, the writing is great, the direction is flawless, and the acting is astounding. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal, it’s as emotional a movie as you’re likely to find and everything you could want from a boxing movie and more; delivering a one-two punch of emotion and epic fighting, Southpaw is a real knockout.

Matt Wheeldon@TheMattWheeldon.

Verdict:
Official Trailer:
Ratings 09