With a movie like “Southpaw”, the question is not have you seen the story before, but how is the story going to be told? While the classic redemption story is apparent even from the trailer, the journey to it is gripping and refreshingly real. With stellar performances, “Southpaw” is a standout character study in the ring of boxing films.
The film starts with Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) on top of the world. He’s the light weight champion of the world, lives in a mansion, and has a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). After his Maureen is tragically murdered (in a breath-taking, dramatic scene) Hope starts to lose control. Running the gamut of grief from anger to depression, by the time he sobers up it’s too late. He’s lost his wife, mansion, and the state has put his daughter in protective services.
With no money, due to fake friends draining him, his excessive spending and his own ignorance, Hope is forced to get a 300 square foot apartment. He enlists the help of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to train him properly to do the only thing he knows how to do, fight. He not only has to fight an opponent in the ring, but he has to fight his own demons and fight to win his daughter’s heart back.
The rich detail that writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) go into in combination of the script and visuals show a side of boxing we don’t normally think about. They highlight the “performance” of boxing and use the glitz and glamour to their advantage to remind the viewer that there is a person who steps out of the ring after a fight we pay to be entertained by. Sons of Anarchy fans know Sutter’s writing can be emotional and moody, but thanks to great casting (except Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) each emotional stepping stone is earned.
Jake Gyllenhaal is immersed in the character of Billy Hope. From his mumbled speech pattern to the way he holds his body, Gyllenhaal is totally believable as an adult fighter who came up through the system. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and McAdams is what award winning performances are made of. While McAdams role is short-lived in the film, her performance is so strong that her presence remains throughout in a way that the words on the page couldn’t have dreamed of!
Forest Whitaker gives a long overdue, subtle, and genuine performance that he didn’t dial in for as Tick Wills. He’s a trainer with demons that we never know the origins of, but they come through in many of his scenes. I’ve never seen Oona Laurence, but after this film she is definitely a young talent to watch!
“Southpaw” is one of those films that feels out of place in the middle of the summer. A film like this usually plays in the winter months for awards consideration, and it should definitely get that! It’s a character study into love, loss, grief, and how we choose to respond when we’ve fallen.