Much like pimps, it’s also hard out here for boxers. Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams star in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw.
Cast of Characters:
Billy Hope – Jake Gyllenhaal
Titus “Tick” Wills – Forest Whitaker
Angela Rivera – Naomie Harris
Jordan Mains – Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Leila Hope – Oona Laurence
Maureen Hope – Rachel McAdams
Director – Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay – Kurt Sutter
Producer – Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Antoine Fuqua & Jerry Ye
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a professional boxer that has it all – a sprawling mansion, a beautiful, loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), both of whom grew up in the system in Hell’s Kitchen, their adorable daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), and a great pro career that now includes a World Light Heavyweight championship. When tragedy hits him with the death of his wife during a fight with an arrogant boxing rival, Hope hits rock bottom emotionally, and then financially after his manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).
When Billy’s self-destructive behavior following Maureen’s death leads to social services taking temporary custody of Leila, he turns to retired fighter Tick Wells (Forest Whitaker), the trainer/owner of a local, run-down gym, to help him earn his shot at redemption.
A better name for Southpaw could’ve been Ali… Body and Soul… The Boxer… The Champ… Champion… Cinderella Man… The Fighter… Hard Times… The Harder They Fall… The Hurricane… Million Dollar Baby… Raging Bull… Resurrecting the Champ… Rocky… II… III… IV… V… Balboa… The Set-Up… Somebody Up There Likes Me.
You get the point.
So yeah, If you’ve seen one boxing film, you’ve seen ’em all, and Southpaw has it all. The former boxing champ who’s now at rock bottom and must climb his way up through adversity back to the top? Check. The adorable daughter he must fight to win back? Check. The crusty old, hard-ass boxing trainer who’s all about doing things his way or the highway? Check. The too easy to hate opponent who acts like a major dick to the hero and even more of a dick to his wife? Check.
Even if you haven’t seen any of the aforementioned boxing films, don’t worry. Harvey Weinstein, in his infinite wisdom (yes, the same tantrum-inspired wisdom he showed by slashing the distribution to the film he was funding, Snowpiercer, simply over not getting his way), made sure you’re gonna know everything about this film anyway by revealing key plot point after key plot point after key plot point in the trailer. You might as well save your money and just watch the trailer on YouTube. It’s essentially the entire film.
Not that it’s critic proof, but Southpaw is one of those films that really doesn’t offer much to critique, aside from maybe a few smarter editing choices from director Antoine Fuqua. With two training montages and one bleak scene too many of Gyllenhaal’s aptly named Billy Hope being reminded how shitty of a father he is, Southpaw should’ve had 10 minutes of its 123 minute run time trimmed on the cutting room floor. Other than that, it’s the same overly familiar, by-the-numbers kind of film, borrowing from many other much better films of its kind, but it does so solidly enough to hold your attention.
This film owes pretty much everything to its cast. The performances here by the primary players are so good; in fact, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s play-it-safe material doesn’t really deserve performances this good, but thankfully for the film’s sake, and more importantly the moviegoer coughing up the cash to see this, they elevate the film above being just another forgettable boxing flick.
With End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler under his belt, Jake Gyllenhaal has been on a roll. Keep in mind, I only referred to just the past three years; I haven’t brought up the number of other strong performances he’s done in between the turn of the 21st century and 2012 (those acting like his turn here is the big “game changer” clearly haven’t seen anything he’s done since October Sky back in 1999… not counting Bubble Boy). At first glance, it might seem that the role, originally meant for Eminem (thank God the casting directors had second thoughts), consists of the usual checkoff points for Oscar voters – physical transformation (Gyllenhaal gained back the weight he lost for Nightcrawler and then some), dolled up with cuts and bruises, the Brando-esque mumbling, etc. Yet Gyllenhaal brings a sincere intensity to Billy Hope that counters any argument that this is just Oscar grandstanding.
In what appears to be another “For Your Consideration” role tailor-made for the Oscar voters, Forest Whitaker plays Southpaw’s version of Mickey Goldmill, and as always, brings great nuance and gravitas to a cliche role (Whitaker was one of the few redeeming elements of Taken 3). Rachel McAdams gives us a refreshing reminder of the talent she possesses, talent the former Nicholas Sparks darling rarely gets to show (like Whitaker in Taken 3, she was one of the very, very, very few redeeming aspects of the horribly disappointing Aloha), in just a handful of scenes. It says a lot of her and Gyllanhaal that they can take a spoiled moment from the trailers and still make it devastating. Oona Laurence gives depth to what could’ve been another obligatory and manipulative child device (oh, and holding your own opposite an actor like Gyllenhaal isn’t bad either).
Hell, you know the whole cast is up to the task when even 50 Cent turns in a good performance.
Southpaw contains no surprises and is mostly the same bleak note throughout the film. We know the narrative path, and it’s not exactly spoilers in any way for me to say – surprise, surprise – Hope gets his daughter back and wins the big climactic fight. It speaks well of the actors’ talents, though, that all of these moments we see coming from a mile away can still carry an emotional impact ’cause of what they bring to their roles. This is a case of Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker and the rest of cast not only doing most of the heavy lifting, but all of the heavy lifting. Yet it’s still strong work from all of them that’s enough to earn a recommendation from me.
I give Southpaw a B- (★★★).
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