Southpaw is a B Movie in Beast Mode
Review by Daniel Rester
Jake Gyllenhaal continues his string of impressive, transformative performances with his presentation of fictional boxer Billy Hope in Southpaw. The film – written by Kurt Sutter and originally intended as a vehicle for rapper Eminem – finds Gyllenhall delivering probably his most physically demanding performance yet as Hope, with the actor bursting with muscle gain. His skills and energy as an actor also help anchor the otherwise straightforward — but solid — Southpaw.
The picture tells the story of orphan-turned-light heavyweight champion Hope, who lives happily with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). He’s also backed by a manager named Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), who wants Hope to fight more despite Maureen thinking he is becoming punch-drunk.
Tragedy strikes after Hope gets into a brawl with another fighter (real-life boxer Victor Ortiz) at a charity event. Hope’s life soon spirals out of control, so he turns to the assistance of trainer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker) in order to gain his footing again. I will stop there to avoid any spoilers for the plot, and I also urge people to stay away from the spoiler-heavy trailers that have been used to market the film in case they have been lucky enough to avoid them thus far.
Southpaw is one of those films that brings a lot of good to the table but nothing particularly great or fresh at the same time. That makes the film a slight disappointment, I guess, in that there is nothing new here story-wise. Sutter’s script is built on boxing movie clichés and formulas, telling the predictable fall-and-get-back-up champion story audiences have seen before for decades and decades. This one just has modern dialogue and Eminem songs sprinkled on top to update things.
Despite Southpaw falling back on been-there-done-that melodrama, I would be lying if I said the film wasn’t entertaining. It’s actually very entertaining and proves that formulas can work well and not necessarily doom a movie to just being average if they’re given the right treatment. That treatment starts with Sutter’s writing around the edges of the clichés. He gives the characters and situations just enough weight and believability while piling on the emotion as well; the script has heart while also being tough, avoiding just being sports sappiness all the way through.
Training Day (2001) director Antoine Fuqua helmed Southpaw, and he and editor John Refoua bring a welcome snappiness and energy to the majority of the film. Fuqua has never been one to avoid hard-hitting drama where characters have to prove themselves. Southpaw isn’t any different as far as that goes, with Fuqua telling this tale of redemption with a sure hand; he knows how to give the proper feelings and flow to the stories of rough characters.
Well-done fight scenes are essential to helping make or break a boxing film (duh), and the ones in Southpaw are engaging and exciting. Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore stick to expected shot compositions and ESPN-like flat lighting for the fights, favoring realism over any form of visual artistry; watch Raging Bull (1980) instead for beauty in filming boxing. But everything is well-framed and moves smoothly, with Refoua’s precise cutting assisting with the impact. The fights are made to look sweaty, bloody, and loud, and succeed in looking like real boxing matches.
Time to get to why Southpaw is really worth seeing: Gyllenhaal’s performance. Just wow. He is certainly no Bubble Boy anymore. The actor moves and speaks like a real fighter in Southpaw, complete with an insane amount of physicality in his performance. He doesn’t get to flex his character actor muscles quite as much as he did with things like End of Watch (2012) and Nightcrawler (2014), but his performance as Hope is still admirable.
Gyllenhaal is surrounded by a bevy of strong supporting actors, though none of them shine quite as much as the lead. McAdams gets the most out of her small role, while Whitaker provides just the right amount of trainer wisdom and mixed emotions to Tick. Laurence impresses as Leila, effectively holding her own on the screen with her shared dramatic scenes with Gyllenhaal. Even real-life rapper Jackson and real-life boxer Ortiz do pretty well, fitting in among the other actors and the style of the film.
Like any boxing film, Southpaw has the usual training montage sequences aplenty. But montages wouldn’t be the same without music to help lift them up. Fuqua’s film has a couple of blood-pumping Eminem songs on the soundtrack, but the main core of the music is a score by the late James Horner. It looks like it will serve as the masterful composer’s second-to-last score since he tragically passed away not too long ago. I can’t say the Southpaw music is some of the most memorable of Horner’s long career, but a lot of the tracks do have spirit to them.
Southpaw doesn’t reinvent the boxing movie wheel at all. It instead embraces the formulas and applies a lot of passion and skill into presenting them. Fans of the sport might get a little more out of the movie than casual viewers, but it can be enjoyed by anyone in my eyes. It’s also another bullet to load in the chamber of proving that Gyllenhaal is one of the finest and most dedicated talents working in his field today.
My Grade: B (on an F to A+ scale).
Viewing Recommendation: Skip It, Wait for Cable, Wait for Blu-ray Rental/VOD, See It at Matinee Price, Worth Full-Price Theater Ticket
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence).
Runtime: 2 hours and 3 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: July 24th, 2015.