Oh not another boxing move, I hear you cry. Hollywood has surely done the underdog-goes-against-the-odds routine so many times that even Rocky must baulk at the prospect of climbing back into the ring! And to be honest, there isn’t a shred of anything remotely original about Southpaw, yet somehow it manages to be thoroughly watchable and entertaining all the same. This is down to not only a powerhouse performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, but also an absolutely excellent showcase of top-notch acting from Oscar winner Forest Whitaker.
Unfortunately the trailer does give a little too much away – an annoying occurrence that many Hollywood marketing campaigns are guilty of nowadays - meaning little is left in the way of surprise when actually viewing the movie. Boxing champion Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is riding high at the top of his fighting career, but disaster strikes when his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is tragically killed during a hotel lobby scuffle with boxing rival Miguel Escobar (played by an appropriately thuggish Miguel Gomez). Billy’s life slowly descends into turmoil as he loses custody of his only daughter, is stripped of his championship belt, his long-time friend and agent Jordan (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson) deserts him, and Billy is declared bankrupt. Living in squalor, Billy is determined to win back custody of his child, and prove to the social worker (007’s Naomie Harris) that he is worthy of being a father figure. Billy must build himself up again with the help of one-time great trainer Titus ‘Tick’ Willis (Forest Whitaker) who begrudgingly agrees to train Billy for his inevitable showdown with Escobar. So far, so Hollywood cliché then.
But there’s a certain magic present in Southpaw. For starters, the acting is sublime all around. Gyllenhaal is spellbinding (as always), portraying Billy Hope’s loss, sorrow, shame, anger, guilt, and love in an absolutely first-class Oscar worthy performance that’s not to be missed. The role was originally designed for rapper Eminem – which explains Southpaw’s hip-hop vibe - but it really is hard to imagine anyone else in the role (although Eminem would’ve been a perfect substitute judging from his performance in 8 Mile). The only niggle I have is that Gyllenhaal perhaps exudes too much intelligence as a person that makes his character’s past life choices a tad unbelievable. This aside, he still proves with Southpaw that he may very well be the finest actor of his generation. He’s thrown himself into the role feet-first, and his immaculate physique shows it.
Even better yet is Forest Whitaker - the film’s real hidden gem. He doesn’t appear until around the half-way mark, but when he does the film just shifts up a gear or two. His portrayal is executed with perfection and goes leagues beyond being just a stereotypical ‘gruff trainer’. The moments of connection between the two men feel touchingly genuine as they drink, mourn, and bond with each other. It’s been a while since he was given a role this meaty, and boy does he sink his teeth into the character.
Praise goes to the supporting cast also. Rachel McAdams chemistry with Gyllenhaal adds invaluable weight to the emotional stakes, and Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson brings his natural street smarts to his role. Special mention must also go to Antoine Fuqua’s direction. The scenes involving Billy’s anguish as he visits a daughter who has grown cold and unresponsive to him are directed with sensitivity. And the boxing sequences are spectacular – Fuqua carefully avoids Rocky-style bravado or replicating Raging Bull’s visceral approach. The director instead delivers something unique altogether, placing the camera tight to the actors as they spar, maintaining the closest position possible to heighten the impact as each punch lands.
In conclusion, Southpaw may present the tired-old ‘get back up after life knocks you down’ routine that we’ve seen so many times before, but thanks to Fuqua’s direction, a script full of punchy dialogue, and some excellent performance from the cast, Southpaw manages to transcend its own generic limitations.
While not destined to become a classic, Southpaw is still compelling and touching despite its predictability, and both Gyllenhaal and Whitaker give powerful performances that may well garner Oscar attention.