Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly and calmly been racking up one of the most impressive acting careers in modern cinema. By now Gyllenhaal has cemented himself as one of the top actors working today, maybe even top ten material. Needless to say after the transformation he went through as an actor in “Nightcrawler” (that should have been gotten him at the very least a nomination for best actor) I waited anxiously to see what he would do next. “Southpaw” is that next project for Gyllenhaal and “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua. After a little bit of dry spell here in the summer movie season, “Southpaw” comes out to hit our emotional side and bask in the greatness of another top notch Gyllenhaal performance. “Southpaw” isn’t perfect and isn’t necessarily best picture worthy but “Southpaw” is able to mix compelling drama with sometimes overly familiar tropes to produce a memorable boxing film.
After a tragedy befalls champion boxer Billy “The Great” Hope, his life becomes a downward spiral of animosity. Hope loses custody of his daughter, loses his home and is suspended and can’t box for a whole year. Hope doesn’t know much outside of the life of boxing and was brought up in child services along with his wife. Hope’s only chance is to put his life back together the only way he knows how and be determined to get back into the ring.
It is difficult to come up with something new to the boxing movie formula. We’ve seen many variations and takes set in the sport’s world and many of them (both the good films and the bad films) typically follow some similar themes and narrative arcs. “Southpaw” does follow a lot of the same general tropes of the genre especially in regards to the subgenre’s arcs of redemption. Yet even with those themes we are familiar with, the movie never feels lazy. That’s something many make the mistake of; just because something isn’t groundbreaking or new that doesn’t mean the movie can’t excel even in the realm of what we’re already familiar with and execute those tropes well. “Southpaw” does frustrate sometimes with occasionally being too clichéd at points but director Antoine Fuqua and “Son of Anarchy” screenwriter Kurt Sutter are always firing on all cylinders giving it all behind the camera. There is a passion to the project that makes the story feel genuine.
That all being said, “Southpaw” isn’t too by the books. Sure it might be easy to predict the outcome, but “Southpaw” is able to throw a few surprising and effective left hooks at you with its dark and emotionally draining drama. This film has plenty of boxing in it but the movie really focuses on Hope’s downward spiral and his increasingly strained relationship with his young daughter, Lelia. This is a movie that hinges on the emotions that it’s dealing you. Either you’ll connect with that emotion or you don’t. For me I was able to, which made for some tough scenes to watch as the film drains your own personal emotions. I do admit sometimes the emotional struggle did at times feel too extreme with Sutter really trying to bang you over the head with it. Although again they were all effective no matter how extreme they felt. The scenes had an authentic feel to them where it made me latch onto the characters and their struggles.
Stepping into the ring is the aforementioned Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal once again impresses with an Oscar worthy performance (that won’t get a nomination because if he didn’t get one for “Nightcrawler” he isn’t going to get one for this). Going through another huge body change Gyllenhaal gets ripped for the role (and makes the male audience ashamed of themselves). And like the previously mentioned “Nightcrawler” he loses himself into the role. Not resorting to playing “a normal” down on his luck guy, Gyllenhaal creates a multi dimensional character with many flaws but also many redeeming sides. His character creates conflict that allows the audience to see those different sides of him. He can be quiet and insecure but also full of rage and anger; yelling and screaming at the top of lungs inside the ring. Turning a role that could be just simply one dimensional Gyllenhaal creates many fascists of a personality that isn’t present in many other characters in similar parts.
The fight actually inside the rings are some of the best in years. Director Antoine Fuqua may not have created the most realistic of fight scenes but they never stray too far into “Rocky III” (or “Rocky IV”) cartoon land. Fuqua’s real and gritty approach to filmmaking helps keep one foot into the realm of reality. They are fast and gripping, coupled with the late great James Horner’s score Fuqua is able to deliver some good and standout matches.
In the corner with the supporting cast we have the veteran Forest Whitaker crafting the perfect mentor role for Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope character. He has his own demons but is trying to write his wrongs and Whitaker brings a credibility to the role that otherwise might be a Mickey impersonation.
Rachel McAdams has been impressing me a lot recently with her performance in this season’s “True Detective” and now her role in this. Granted she doesn’t have a lot of screen time however when she is on screen she excels especially in one pivotal (that if you haven’t seen the trailer I won’t give away) . Oona Laurence does a really good job as a young child actor (which we know can only go one of two ways). 50 Cent plays the boxing promoter and surprisingly does very well in a role that seems well suited for him.
“Southpaw” doesn’t quite deliver the final knockout blow or give that “Adrian” moment (from the original “Rocky”) in the film’s final moments. However, the movie doesn’t let you down in those moments either. This is a memorable and emotional experience that highlights Jake Gyllenhaal’s continued acting prowess. The movie will bring you to hell and back but this story of redemption is a damn good one.