Review: Southpaw

Put a ring on it: Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a former professional boxer looking to get his groove back.

What is it about boxing that makes it so attractive to filmmakers? Is it the simple yet very relatable and powerful metaphor in the basic principle of the sport itself: get into the ring to defeat (or beat the hell out of) your opponents and your personal demons as well?

For as long as there have been movies, there have also been movies about boxing. In addition to classics like Raging Bull, Rocky and The Champ (both the 1931 and 1979 versions), not to mention more recent releases like Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter and Cinderella Man, cinephiles will also point to Body And Soul and John Huston’s incomparable Fat City as high points of the boxing film genre.

With so many great precedents, expecting a new boxing flick to reinvent the wheel is probably a bit too much to ask and maybe even a tad unrealistic. What a new boxing movie can hope to do, however, is re-energise the genre. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and writer Kurt Sutter (creator of Sons Of Anarchy) have achieved this by milking the power of clichés to the absolute limit here, creating layer upon layer of crushingly powerful melodrama that will make even the biggest non-believer sit up and pay attention.

The movie’s biggest talking point is of course Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation into a very believable light heavyweight boxer, all lean and mean 80kg (175lb) of it, just a year after we saw him as the rail-thin protagonist in Nightcrawler. He plays boxer Billy Hope, and the movie opens with him successfully defending his World Light Heavyweight Championship belt for the fourth consecutive time with a career record of 43 wins and zero losses.

Billy tells his fight promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis Jackson) that he doesnt like that hat.
Billy (Gyllenhaal) tells his fight promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis Jackson) that he doesnt like that hat.

The real light and joy of his life, however, are his wife Maureen (a wonderfully warm Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence in a breakthrough performance). Having been brought up through the child services system, where he also met Maureen, theirs is a fairytale rags-to-riches story, complete with mansion and the entourage that comes with being a superstar boxer.

If you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, then you’ll know that it all comes crashing down when an accidental shooting happens during an altercation between Billy and hot new challenger Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Maureen is killed and Billy’s life is sent spiralling downwards.

To make matters worse, Leila is taken away by child services because of the reckless ways in which Billy responds to the tragedy in his life. By then it becomes clear that the movie is not really about boxing but is actually a redemption tale about an emotionally-stunted boxer trying to come to grips with profound loss and grief.

And it is when the viewer realises this that the real beauty of Gyllenhaal’s performance as Billy shines through. Playing a character who’s obviously not very good at articulating his feelings, and who probably only had Maureen to organise his life and keep his wild temper in check, Gyllenhaal does some really wonderful things with the little ways in which he brings Billy to life. These are evident from the way he lowers his gaze outside the ring (even with his entourage) compared to his fierce glare at his opponents, to the many times the audience will feel his exasperation as he can’t quite figure out how to react to things.

It’s a rich portrayal of what seems on the surface to be a one-note character, but the acting elevates the role. This is also exactly what Forest Whitaker does with his role as Tick Wills, Billy’s reluctant trainer, We know next to nothing about Tick’s background yet we more than understand why he would give someone as messed up as Billy a chance – he’s probably been there himself.

Like Billy, Southpaw is not perfect, but it’s smarter than it seems to be, and it works hard enough and is honest and skillful enough to succeed at what it sets out to do. It may not be a knockout, but it’s a winner, all right!


Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson


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Review: Southpaw


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