UK Release Date: 24th July 2015
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, 50 Cent, Miguel Gomez, Rita Ora
Synopsis: A tragic event causes a boxer to spiral into destruction. He must battle and brawl back to the top to rebuild his life.
The boxing movie is an enormous part of American cinema, from Raging Bull to Rocky. It’s Jake Gyllenhaal who takes centre stage in the genre’s latest entry, scripted by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter and directed by modern action movie supremo Antoine Fuqua. There’s little chance of it becoming a classic in the way of the two aforementioned movies, but it is a solid addition to one of the great American genres.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world, but his violent style worries both his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). In the midst of a scuffle with potential next opponent Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), Maureen is shot. This leads Hope into a substance-fuelled downward spiral and his daughter is taken into care under the supervision of Angela (Naomie Harris). Hope lays himself at the feet of veteran trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), wanting to get back in the ring.
Southpaw is a conventional sports movie in just about every way, with a protagonist driven by unconditional love and a standard redemptive arc. Sutter and Fuqua are not trying to reinvent the wheel or even slightly reshape the genre, content to mine the beats of the past. If you’ve seen a sports movie before, you’ll be able to predict how the film ends, but none of its strengths lie in its plotting.
| "Billy Hope knows how to take a punch, but he also drops bombs."
It’s Jake Gyllenhaal who elevates Southpaw above the incredibly generic trappings of its story. The role was originally earmarked for rapper Eminem, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Gyllenhaal bringing such commitment to the performance. Gyllenhaal’s physicality is a genuine sight to behold, whether it’s the terrifyingly plausible in-ring action or the way he lumbers around, lacking in anything approaching grace.
In fact, Gyllenhaal – and on-screen wife Rachel McAdams – deliver performances that are considerably more nuanced than the film in which they are contained. The early scene in which McAdams is shot is a genuinely heart-breaking one, thanks to the easy chemistry that the pair establish right from the film’s opening stages. Southpaw tries to hit the heights of that scene throughout, but never quite seems to make it.
The film does have a problem with its female characters, though. It shunts interesting women to one side and dumps their storylines in favour of more boxing action. Naomie Harris, who is responsible for Gyllenhaal’s daughter whilst she’s in care, gets about half of the screen time she deserves and feels like a plot device as a result. Oona Laurence, terrific as the daughter, is saddled with a character whose emotions flip-flop seemingly at random.
| "A fighter only knows one way to work."
Without its strong performances, Southpaw would be the most basic and bland movie imaginable. However, Gyllenhaal’s powerhouse work and a nice turn from McAdams elevates the project to new heights and carries it through to its genuinely rousing conclusion.
It’s not quite a knockout, but it isn’t punch drunk either.
Pop or Poop?
Like any boxing movie, Southpaw is saddled with a tonne of baggage in the shape of the critically lauded films that have seen the genre become a cornerstone of American movies.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives an awards-worthy performance in a film that won’t get anywhere near the red carpet, continuing his recent hot streak.
The plot gets mired in convention and sidelines many of its most interesting threads, but the rousing conclusion and bruising fight sequences make it well worth watching.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.