I’ll admit I had Southpaw down as a possible film of the year contender based solely on the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal, whose choice of projects is always top notch. You can certainly tell what he was going for with this role, though unfortunately Southpaw as a whole isn’t quite up to the extraordinary standards of Gyllenhaal’s recent films.
The hints were there even before release – with Eminem reportedly the original casting choice to play lead character Billy Hope. His mark remains all over the film’s soundtrack (indeed Eminem’s voice is the first you hear), which I didn’t have so much of a problem with. If you’re going to have Eminem involved with your movie, probably best keep it to what he’s most skilled at, and as Southpaw was apparently inspired by the rapper’s personal life (seen as a ‘spiritual successor to 8 Mile’ by screenwriter Kurt Sutter), his involvement is fitting.
Gyllenhaal’s character, Billy Hope, is an undefeated boxer who we see winning the World Light Heavyweight championship in the film’s opening scene. His style involves getting hit a lot by his opponent, letting his anger build up and then unleashing on his foe in the later rounds, which (after a 43 match winning streak) is finally starting to worry his wife, played by Rachel McAdams, who thinks he can’t continue like this for much longer and wants him to quit while he’s on top. But Billy’s temperament makes him reluctant to take his wife’s advice, especially with an eager young challenger on the horizon in the form of Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar.
This doesn’t start out as the typical underdog story – rather it starts with Hope already an undefeated veteran. So far so good in my book; it’s somewhat refreshing to think we aren’t here simply to sit through another typical boxing movie training montage in the run-up to the ‘fight of his life’.
Except that is kind of what Southpaw becomes as we approach the halfway point. A harrowing life event (ruined for you if you’ve seen the trailer) sends Billy and his family into a downward spiral that means the loss of everything he had worked for. Carrying a load of debt, a bruised reputation and having lost the relationship with his daughter, Billy finds himself hitting rock bottom and having to work his way back up. Enter Forest Whitaker who gradually helps him learn to control his temperament and become a better fighter, with a full-on training montage in tow as Billy Hope prepares for his big comeback.
Now, let me establish a couple of things here. First, to say this movie succumbs to all the genre cliches you can imagine is not to say I didn’t enjoy it as a result. Second, while comparisons to a certain other film from the 1970s are inevitable, I believe these are unfair. The difference between this film and that one is the same as the difference between their two leads – they are clearly in a separate weight class and should be judged in those respective terms. It also goes without saying that they were made for two different generations. Southpaw is, while perhaps not quite as well-rounded in its storytelling, at least as entertaining as that movie when it pertains to the sport of boxing. Had it come first then I daresay critics would be raving about it a lot more.
Alas, it did not come first; it has arrived 40 years later. Due to a few glaring faults it is also going to struggle to be remembered for the right reasons when it comes to the end of this year.
There is a general feeling with Southpaw that some of the cast and crew have come along for a fun ride rather than to indulge their passion for filmmaking. For example, I’ll ask a question to which I know there is no serious artistic answer: what exactly is Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson doing here? You’re never quite sure whether his smugness is supposed to be a character trait or just 50 Cent being, well, himself. Why is he in this film, aside from the obvious fact that he’s friends with the other rapper so prominent on its soundtrack?
I think partially as a result of this almost flippant overall approach, intended sub-plots end up falling flat, including one in particular featuring a kid that Billy starts to become attached to during the course of his training; the resolution to which is brushed off when it should be a major turning point for his character development.
Having said that, there are still some great things about this movie. Fine performances from the core cast, such as Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and most of all Oona Laurence, who is a revelation as Billy’s daughter Leila, go a long way to papering over the film’s cracks. Some of the best moments are when it gets to the emotional side of the story between Billy and his daughter as they go through their rocky period and ultimate reconciliation (come on, that’s no spoiler), while the fight sequences get up close and personal with the faces of the boxers – making it seem almost like you’re experiencing the literal blood, sweat and tears along with them.
You can tell Gyllenhaal himself put a lot into this role; his muscular physique is a stark contrast to the thin build he had only last year for Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom. Unfortunately, aside from the physicality of the fights, the material he is given to work with in Southpaw isn’t quite as compelling as in his last role, and it would be difficult to make a case for him getting a nod for best actor this time around. This isn’t a groundbreaking role by any means, partly because we’ve seen it all before, and we’ve seen that Gyllenhaal has so much more in his skill set as an actor than is on show here.
When all’s said and done, I’ll still admit that I actually very much enjoyed this film. It’s not aiming to win any awards for originality, but honestly, if you come into Southpaw knowing what you’re getting, it won’t disappoint. Gyllenhaal fans and boxing fans alike (I consider myself moderately both) will deem it adequate at the very least, and if one looks past the nit-picking, it’ll provide enough interest and entertainment to be considered a worthy cinema trip. Whether it will have lasting appeal remains to be seen. But for now, I’ll give it a flawed pass.
7 / 10