In comparison to other sports I think boxing is the most common sport tackled in Hollywood movies, mainly because of its inherent drama & the intensity which brings out the best performances from its leading stars. Films like the Rocky series, Raging Bull, Ali, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter easily come to mind as among the best of them ever made. Rocky made a star out of Stallone, Raging Bull got De Niro the Academy Award, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood scored at the Academy for the Million Dollar Baby, and films like Cinderella Man and Ali were critically acclaimed with standout performances from their leading men.
What’s common is the performances of the actors, who give their heart and soul, with each one outstandingly giving a predictable script the feeling that you have just watched a good piece of theater. As with most sports dramas, this is a film more about the man than the sport. Labelled by many as the ‘modern day Raging Bull‘, I had high hopes from this Antoine Fuqua directed film and thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, it duly delivered. This is a tale of one man’s path to redemption through boxing. Truth be told, there are better movies out there about boxing and/or redemption. This isn’t Rocky, much less Raging Bull. But, somehow, this film pulls off that weird, difficult trick of being predictable but compelling at the same time. The ending may never be in doubt, but there’s a certain pleasure to be derived from the journey. If all else fails, watch this for Gyllenhaal, who’s currently doing some of the best, most vital work of his career. Its definitely the magic of director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, Training Day) which makes the film work, despite its tried & tested predictable formula. Its through Antoine Fuqua‘s sensitive direction, Kurt Sutter‘s punchy dialogue and some excellent performances, The film somehow transcends its own generic limitations. Boxing is always going to be cliched, but that is why we come back to see the same story over and over again.
Everybody loves to root for the underdog and everybody loves to see a person fall from grace and then with a hard fought struggle, followed by some training montages, reclaim their dignity through redemption. The story follows Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Light Heavyweight champion at the height of his career and a boxer known for his unique style and impressive fight record. When his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), is shot dead following a scuffle with title contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), Billy loses everything: his career, his lifestyle, and his family. both Billy’s career and personal life go in a downward spiral that sees him both lose his boxing license and his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), to child protection services. Trapped by grief, depression and his grim circumstances, Billy must fight hard to get back on his feet and recover what he can of his old life. Billy turns to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him get his life back on track.
As mentioned before, the film focuses more on the man than the sport however, the film is one of the only boxing dramas I have seen where the sport of boxing actually feels like a character in the film, not just a backdrop for the drama. The film does become a bit predictable and features quite a few cliches, which can’t be helped in this genre, but director Antoine Fuqua does a good job in making sure the film has a bit of a cutting edge to it. This is a hard hitting drama that isn’t scared to throw the hardest of punches at its audience. Director Antoine Fuqua effectively uses all the right emotions out of this story. The storytelling is well-paced and the camera work is compelling. The fight scenes were well-choreographed and executed on screen — very brutal, bloody, all with high tension. The first person point of view during the fights puts you right in the midst of all the action. The boxing scenes were so enthralling, they involved such wall-to-wall burst of punches with spraying blood and Fuqua‘s gutsy camera skills that keep you motivated the whole time. Jake snorting like a mad bull, he surely brought out the horns to each opponent with a raging force, these scenes were just so highly entertaining that they made your heart pumping with such adrenaline. Antoine Fuqua has most certainly brought his charm back into the ring by bringing a fascinating boxing drama to the big screen. Even though it may have a all to familiar plot when it comes to the formulaic boxing aspect, this film really smooths out well with such heavenly storytelling, we are given a accurate accusation of how something can affect someone in the hardest way possible.
The musical score contributes so much to the drama of this film. This is also the last film James Horner scored before his untimely demise in a plane crash recently. We also hear Eminem rap in the soundtrack. It is interesting to note that Eminem was actually the original choice to play Billy Hope (Cant even comprehend how horrifying that would have been). The film is an acting showcase for its lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Last year in the film “Nightcrawler”, Gyllenhaal gave us all the creeps with his very realistic portrayal of sociopathic pseudo-video journalist Louis Bloom.
He was overlooked at the Oscars of the Best Actor nomination he clearly deserved. With this meaty role, Gyllenhaal set out to prove that that his trans formative performance last year was not a fluke at all. The transformation would mean absolutely nothing without the performance to match though. His grueling six month training regime certainly makes him look like a boxer but his decision to learn the boxing techniques means he moves like a boxer too, making the performance even more authentic. His performance here as Billy Hope is another triumph of his very serious and committed method acting style. We feel every ache of his weary body as he shuffles in his gait. His speech is already slurred with probable nerve damage. We see and sense the ravages of his vicious sport on him. He captured the character of an impulsive man who was not too savvy in life, and easily driven to violently angry tendencies. As Billy’s world collapses around him, Gyllenhaal brings us all down to his hell with him. We totally see the unraveling of a man until a mere shadow of him remained. Then we would witness how he humbles himself as he tries to bring the shattered pieces of his life back together again. This was in addition to all the pounding he had in the boxing ring itself. The actors in supporting roles all share in Gyllenhaal‘s shine.
Despite her name being so prominent in the poster, Rachel McAdams appeared on screen only for a very short time. In that limited time, we clearly see the effect of her strong yet charming character Maureen on her husband Billy. The little Oona Laurence plays their spirited daughter Leila well. Gyllenhaal and Laurence share some pretty intensely emotional scenes together. Forest Whitaker, as usual, adds a quality to proceedings. It was clever how they even include Whitaker’s left eye into the story. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays Billy’s fair-weather manager Jordan Mains. He really has this sleazy vibe about him with his flashy smile and shiny suits. For a change he is actually likable in a negative role.
On the whole, Southpaw is a compelling, touching and surprisingly truthful effort, despite its flaws. Ignore the predictable script and focus on the memorable performances of the actors and you will come away with a very satisfying experience. While Southpaw isn’t the masterpiece that Raging Bull or Rocky was, it certainly sees Fuqua make his best film since Training Day. Led by another top performance from Gyllenhaal, maybe Southpaw will make the voters this awards season stand up and take notice of his talent, not ignore it like they did with Nightcrawler. Must watch!
Overall Rating: 8.2
Director – Antoine Fuqua
Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Rated – R
Run Time – 124 minutes