With films like THE FIGHTER (2010) and WARRIOR (2011) paving the way for knockout contemporary sports films, there’s a strong demand for high quality boxing flicks that both stimulate the fighter in all of us, as well as deliver seriously strong emotive content. This year, Antoine Fuqua (THE EQUALIZER) throws his attempt into the ring with SOUTHPAW.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy ‘The Great’ Hope, a pro-boxer in the height of his career after defeating his demons and rising from the ashes of the Hell’s Kitchen foster care system; along with his beautiful wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and sweet daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Immediately after the decision to take a break from fighter to focus on family life, Billy’s life is destroyed as Maureen is fatally shot in a brutal scuffle with Billy’s rival, loud-mouthed rising star Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
With the anchoring support of his wife suddenly gone, Billy soon descends into a hateful spiral of self destruction that leads him walking away from his trainer (50 Cent), blowing his fortune and losing custody of Leila; leaving him devastated at the deterioration of their relationship. With no home or income, Billy finds himself turning to independent gym owner Tick Willis (Forrest Whitaker), for intense training that eventually leads him to an ultimate fight of revenge and redemption between formal rival and catalyst to his wife’s death, Miguel.
The narrative itself is a carbon copy of every convention traditionally found within a sports movie, it’s a cookie-cutter story and there’s simply noway of getting around it. There lies the main fault within SOUTHPAW’S entirety. It flirts between cliche and cheesy, as Billy finds that one special trainer that’s going to make it all better for him; insert boxing ring montage here. While the relationship between Billy and new trainer Trick is actually pretty solid, it gets lost within a barrage of cliche boxing movie references.
In saying this, it’s narrative problems aren’t enough to derail the truly wonderful performance from main man Gyllenhaal. His talent as a dramatic actor seems to only improve with age and when he’ steering clear from disastrous romcom’s, I’m looking at you LOVE & OTHER DRUGS, he really is one of Hollywood’s most adaptive and captivating talents. With his spectacular performance in Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER still fresh in everyone’s memories, his take on Billy gives justice to this new surge of hype in his career.
It’s impossible not to find ones heart crumble when Leila refuses to see her Father once she’s placed in care, as Gyllenhaal’s portrayal as the devastated Dad is as brutal as some of the fight scenes; with Oona Laurence giving him a run for his money in the tear-jerker stakes. Gyllenhaal obviously pours himself into this character, both physically and emotionally, as his tremendous talent breaks free from the aforementioned narrative faults; leading to a performance so raw and honest it comes with its very own Oscars rumor.
Gyllenhaal’s physical performance is almost as impressive as his emotional one and the last fight scene turns movie theater’s into ring side seats of blood, sweat and tears. It’s an absolutely fierce climax to the narrative, which actually provides a pleasing pace, as Billy and Miguel square off for twelve rounds of absolute torture.
Fuqua certaintly knows how to direct these intense scenes with utter ease and with the help of cinematographer Mauro Fiore (AVATAR), they create a smorgasbord of visual pleasure, in the form of intense close up’s, hand held camera work and stylish show shots that ultimately lead to an all-round aesthetically pleasing movie. Accompanied by James Horner‘s brilliantly pumped up, urban score; SOUTHPAW strives to place it’s audience directly into the action and pulls it off with confidence.
It’s difficult to ignore the narrative issues from Kurt Sutter’s predictable script and this would indeed be the film’s kiss of death if it were not for the rest of the cast and crew’s stellar efforts. Thankfully then, Gyllenhaal gives a wholly gut punching performance that will leave audiences feeling suitably battered and bruised; with visually style that is perhaps a new best for Fuqua.