Sorry for the tardiness of this post. However, for many Southpaw is still out in theatres near them, so go and see it! Now, on to my thoughts:
Humans love to fight. In a world that has moved past martial prowess and showings of strength as means to gain wealth, property, etc. it is not surprising that there is a primal satisfaction many feel from watching two people engage in a physical contest. From Rocky, to Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby, The Boxer, and Raging Bull, the boxing film has long been seen as the pinnacle of sports-based cinema. Perhaps this is due to the inherent relatability of these narratives. Many have not been part of a sports team or ever set foot in a gymnasium as anything but an observer.
Yet physical struggle is universal. Everyone has felt tired, worn out, and beat down (at least, I sincerely hope so). Most people have not felt these things while being repeatedly punched in the face; but it’s a short jump in imagination that allows for an audience to become swiftly invested in the central characters of fighting films. In the vein of Rocky Balboa, James Braddock, Danny Flynn, and others, comes Southpaw’s Billy Hope, played by the shapeshifting, mesmerizing Jake Gyllenhaal.
As with most boxing films, this is a story of perseverance, heart, and personal growth. At the outset, Billy is a brute of fighter; powerful, yet reckless, wholly dependent upon his ability to take punishing amounts of damage while waiting to deliver the knock-out blow. Though he’s a champion, Billy’s complete lack of self-preservation has begun to worry those closest to him, especially his wife, Maureen, played by the always compelling Rachel McAdams. Though she admires Billy’s resilience, she fears for him, warning him that he’ll be punch drunk within a year if he’s not careful and will be unable to care for their young daughter, Leila, played by newcomer Oona Laurence, who turns in an incredible performance for someone so young. Billy wants to change, but is admittedly not the sharpest tool in the shed, always deferring to his wife, who deftly manages his career while also struggling to protect him from his money-motivated agent, Jordan, played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
At a charity event for foster home children (like Billy and Maureen), Billy is confronted by up-and-coming boxer Miguel Escobar, played by Miguel Gomez. After goading Billy with insults, a brawl ensues, where one of Miguel’s bodyguards tragically shoots and kills Maureen. Having lost the heart of his support system, Billy’s life takes a downward spiral. His finances fall apart as he turns to drugs and alcohol to cope with his depression. After losing his friends and custody of his daughter, Billy hits rock bottom.
After languishing in his despair, Billy finally decides to make a change and seek the guidance and direction he so desperately needs. He turns to Titus “Tick” Willis, played by the one and only Forest Whitaker. Tick, a former professional boxer, runs a gym that teaches inner city kids how to box to keep them out of trouble. In this company, Billy finds that he is not an outsider, but yet another person in dire need of the discipline and mentorship that Tick provides. Though initially contentious, Billy and Tick soon come to understand one another and what follows is Billy’s metamorphosis from raging brute to thoughtful, technical boxer. Fueled by his need to get his daughter back, Billy takes a last ditch bid to fight Miguel Escobar to regain everything that he lost and become the champion he always aspired to be.
Southpaw is not a surprising film. This is not a bad thing. As stated before, there’s something inherently compelling about these stories, about all stories that resonate widely and are remade over and over under different guises. How many revenge films do we get a year? How many corny, romantic comedies? Inspiring team sports films? These stories move people and though they might not be surprising, that is the purpose of art. This is why I loved Southpaw. It is not so much a plot-driven movie as it is a character study of Billy Hope, his fall, and eventual rise.
At over two hours in runtime, Southpaw spends a good deal of time focused upon Billy’s initial home life, fall from grace, and rebirth aided by Tick Willis. Due to the amount of time this film spends outside the ring, Southpaw lives and dies upon the performance of its central actor. Thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, it is hugely successful. After wowing audiences as Detective Loki in the excellent Prisoners and seriously creeping people out as this generation’s Travis Bickle in the form of Louis Bloom in last year’s Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal continues to impress as Billy Hope. He is nearly unrecognizable as the boxer, having shredded his body and added on pounds of muscle, Gyllenhaal looks like a beast on camera, all bulging muscles and veins; but beyond the impressive physical transformation, Gyllenhaal’s performance in the quiet moments of Southpaw are what endear the audience to his character. Though prone to bouts of anger, Billy is a good person at heart. He knows he’s not that smart, but he undoubtedly cares about his family and friends. His sense of character is only strengthened by the lessons of Tick, who helps guide him into becoming the man he should be.
Whitaker excels as Tick, offering his share of sage wisdom, though with an added sheen of world-weariness. He’s not an all-knowing Obi-wan, but rather just an old, broken man struggling to give back to kids growing up in a cruel world. His mentorship of Billy is both touching and invigorating, propelling the audience toward the film’s fateful finale. As for Rachel McAdams, she is excellent as Maureen with the limited amount of screen time she is given, really showing the audience why Billy has survived until the start of the film and driving home why her death breaks his life apart.
On the more technical side, Antoine Fuqua (along with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) brings the kinetic, gritty style of his other films, such as The Equalizer and Training Day, to the boxing ring. The fights are hard-hitting and exciting, shot like real pay-per-view affairs with the added intimacy of lingering close-ups, slow-motion frames, and a particularly memorable first-person shot. The soundtrack is also particularly impressive, sporting two singles from Eminem (for whom the role of Billy Hope was initially intended) which are the ever-inspiring, “Kings Never Die” featuring Gwen Stefani, and the equally self-motivating, “Phenomenal” which plays during the film’s inevitable and amazing montage sequence; both songs are sure to make their way into many a workout playlist.
All of this said, Southpaw does exactly what it sets out to do, offering a story of physical perseverance and mental toughness; it appeals to the very deepest narrative desires within all humans and I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be moved by Billy’s struggle. I for one am excited to see it again.