Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Kurt Sutter.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Billy Hope), Rachel McAdams (Maureen Hope), Forest Whitaker (Tick Wills), Oona Laurence (Leila Hope), 50 Cent (Jordan Mains), Skylan Brooks (Hoppy), Naomie Harris (Angela Rivera), Victor Ortiz (Ramone), Beau Knapp (Jon Jon), Miguel Gomez (Miguel 'Magic' Escobar).
There is a certain comfort in watching a movie as clichéd as Southpaw. It is a boxing movie – a sport that has never been less popular in the world than it is right now, but remains the one that the most movies are made about. The film follows a familiar pattern – rich successful boxer loses everything, gets a new trainer – an old, grizzled vet – with a drinking problem, obviously – who runs a rundown gym, helping under privileged kids learn the art of boxing, so they can become better men – and finally, gets a shot at redemption, both inside and outside of the ring. They’ve basically been making this movie, with a few changes here and there, since the silent era – and for the most part, damn it, the formula still works. It helps, of course, when you have a fiercely committed lead – and Jake Gyllenhaal is certainly that in Southpaw, and when that older trainer is played by Forest Whitaker, who has made his fair share of bad movies over the years, but seems incapable of playing a false note, no matter how forced it may seem on the page. The pair don’t really overcome the clichés inherent in Southpaw, or make them seem new, but they do sell the hell out of them. Yeah, you’ve seen Southpaw before – and in better versions – but you’ve also seen it before in much, much worse versions as well.
Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (yep, Hope is his last name) – who is the light heavyweight champion of the world. He grew up in the foster system – and so did his beloved wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) – but now he’s super rich – the kind of rich where his manager can hand him a $30 million contract to sign, and Maureen doesn’t want him to do it. Billy’s a hothead – his style of boxing is basically to let the other guy knock him around for round after round, before he gets really pissed and beats the crap out of the guy. Maureen – correctly – thinks this may end up doing some long term damage to his head. She wants him to be there for their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). So, after another win in the ring, it appears like Billy may well end up retiring. Up – of course – there is a hothead challenger, Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) – who wants his shot, and runs his mouth off a little too much at a charity event. Things spiral out of control, and Maureen ends up dead (don’t complain about a spoiler that’s in the damn trailer). Things go from bad to worse quickly – a fight that goes awful, mounting lawsuits and debt, child services taking away Leila, etc. So Billy Hope has to get everything back all over again – and to do so, he needs Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) – a grizzled trainer, who gave up training pro fighters. But for Billy, he’ll do it – but if, and only if, Billy will do exactly what Tick tells him to.
Southpaw works – as much as it does – because of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker – and to a lesser extent McAdams. She is fine in her role, but it’s a very small one – she dons a stereotypical New Yawk accent, and does it well, and clearly has some fun before she leaves. Whitaker brings his brand of humanism to the role – world weary and tired, but with some humor underneath – including one of the first times I have heard one of his characters discuss his eye. Tick is fundamentally a good person, and that comes through in every scene in the film. Gyllenhaal – who has been on a role as of late, with fine performances in films like Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler – does more good work here. If he became wire thin like DeNiro in Taxi Driver for Nightcrawler, he bulks up like DeNiro in Raging Bull (in the boxing scenes, not the late scenes) here. You’d have to look hard to find a more clichéd role than the tough guy boxer trying to redeem himself, and showing his softer side underneath to his beloved kid – but Gyllenhaal still pulls it off. His redemption feels real, perhaps because he never does seem like that bad of a guy – just a not very smart one.
Everything that goes on around Gyllenhaal and Whitaker is perhaps even more a cliché than their characters are. The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who is quite good at action movie clichés, as well as drawing good performances from fine actors, and does that here as well. The scenes inside the right can be brutally violent, but that’s appropriate, and he captures the intensity as well. The rest of the cast is fine, but no one really leaves much of an impression – not even Naomie Harris, a very good actress, given not much to do as a social worker.
The film takes some narrative shortcuts throughout – many of which strain credibility if you examine them too closely. Hope’s fall is way too rapid for example, and no one much seems to care about arresting anyone for, you know, murdering McAdams. The uplifting ending is all well and good – but someone died here, so perhaps a boxing match cannot fix everything.
Still, Southpaw satisfies that itch for something that is just explosions or dumb comedy in the heat of summer, when every other movie at the multiplex is just that. It’s smart summer, counterprogramming, and fits the bill. Although, like many of those blockbusters, you may well forget about Southpaw when you hit the parking lot – as the film is running, it basically satisfies.