Synopsis: After champion boxer Billy Hope’s life falls apart he enlists a trainer to get him back to the top and retain custody of his daughter.
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If Jake Gyllenhaal hasn’t announced his that he’s one of the top ten actors in Hollywood with his performances in End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler, he certainly just did in Southpaw. In a performance that is sure to garner a Oscar nomination for his leading role, Gyllenhaal transforms himself into a successful, yet damaged boxer Billy Hope.
Southpaw follows the story of Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a boxer that’s on top of his profession. Right from the start we are introduced to Billy’s heavy hitting skills as he knocks out his opponent to become Light Heavyweight Champion.
Hope seems to have it all, a beautiful and supportive wife, played by Rachel McAdams, a daughter who adores him, fancy cars, lives in a mansion, what else could go wrong? As most of you have already witnessed watching the trailer for Southpaw (a trailer that gave away way too much of the plot), tragedy strikes the Hope family when his wife dies unexpectedly due to a gun shot.
As you could imagine, Billy’s life falls into a tailspin of troublesome events that ends up costing him his custody of his daughter. Dropped by his manager, his home foreclosed, and a bank account that’s near empty, Billy turns to a small, rundown gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) for work and guidance.
Wills takes an interest into Billy’s attempted turnaround, gives him a job at the gym, and agrees to help instill the basics of boxing in him. Billy begins to regain hope (no pun intended) in getting custody of his daughter who has vouched not to trust or see him while being held under the control of Child Protective Services.
As much as it plays to be a boxing movie, Southpaw is mainly a story about family, redemption, and hope. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) does a great job of establishing boxing as a means for Billy Hope, not as the end to his priorities in life.
The film has fitting grittiness to it. The cinematographer Mauro Fiore, and production designer Derek R. Hill should be heavily credited for giving the movie a two dimensional feel. There is the dark and dreary portrayal of Hope on his way to recovery, and there is the in-ring boxing that feels as life-like as boxing has been portrayed in any movie.
The boxing scenes have a real fight feel and look to them also. Taking place in Madison Square Garden and Caesar’s Palace, the arena, lighting, and magnitude is captured in great detail.
The fights itself are as authentic looking as you can get in a movie. Every punch feels as if you are right at ringside feeling the hits on pain of the competitors. The fights aren’t rushed, and are detailed in every way. Fuqua uses the fight breaks as an opportunity to further delve into the minds of the fighter and his training crew. While these scenes are short lived, the mood is clearly established and helps progress the fight as well as the story.
On a side note, the music soundtrack meshes well with the action. Eminem is the perfect choice to be the featured theme of the movie.
The performances are as good as it gets. A truly perfect casting of Gyllenhaal, Whitaker, and McAdam’s adds all the authenticity the movie needs.
Gyllenhaal gives one of his best, if not the best performances to date. The physical transformation is unquestioned. He looks as beefed and chiseled up as you can imagine a top athlete to be. Gyllenhaal does a great job of showcasing Hope as someone who has risen from a rough upbringing in the streets. There are frequent scenes where Hope’s struggle with pronouncing words is shown. It’s one of his big hinderances in life, his ability to express himself with words. He seems ashamed to attend public outings where he needs to speak. Additionally, there is a scene where his frustration gets the best of him while trying to write a speech. These sort of nuances that he applies to his characters is what has made Gyllenhaal one of the top actors in Hollywood. This is the kind of performance that should give him a spot in the best male actor category come awards season.
Forest Whitaker does a superb job as Hope’s mentor Tick Wills. It’s the type of supporting role that steals the show. Whitaker is grounded, subtle, all while portraying toughness and command. He has that big brother no-nonsense approach that clashes with Hope, but ultimately connects them together. Whitaker should also be strongly considered for a best supporting actor nod.
McAdams has a fairly brief appearance, but her role is paramount to the film’s narrative. McAdams is a dynamic mix sexy and motherly. An ideal compliment to Gyllenhaal.
Not to be omitted, the daughter, played by Oona Laurence is really terrific. She’s Billy’s hope for resurrection, and Laurence exhibits a real emotional conflict a child might be dealing with during a loss of a mother and the disappointment of a father.
The interesting thing about this movie will be seeing how the audiences take to it. Southpaw has three distinct acts and plots to it. There is the whole family portion, heavily featuring Rachel McAdams’ character early on. Then there is the whole issue of loss, a dark portion of the movie, that might alienate some. Then there is the story of a comeback/redemption ala Rocky. Each act can cater to a specific sort of movie goer. It does have an urban vibe to it, which also might not be something that attracts a particular type of movie goer. This is a type of film that needs that urban vibe to it. It’s part of the culture of boxing. If it wasn’t that way, it wouldn’t be authentic. It’s why Eminem and Southpaw are a perfect match for each other.
Southpaw is a terrific boxing movie, with great overall acting performances. There are some points where the movie is a little too cliche, but it still manages to convey raw emotions of pain, loss, and redemption. I can bet that the theme of hope is not only what drives the movie, but also a wink to the audience by having it as the main characters last name.
Southpaw is on par with Fuqua’s previous hit Training Day, different movie, but similarly compelling and wonderfully acted. If Raging Bull, Rocky, and The Fighter are considered some of the top sports movies of all-time, add Southpaw to that list, of not only the best boxing movies ever, but one of the best sport themed movies, even though it’s much more about family and relationships as it is about throwing a jab. Fuqua and Gyllenhaal truly deliver a knockout punch.
Additional Thoughts: I really enjoyed this movie. Gyllenhaal keeps upping his game, film after film. He’s definitely one of the top actors in Hollywood right now, and if he continues doing great work, he will become one of the best of this generation. Can he match this performance in Everest? Fuqua is one of the more underrated directors in the business. He has the gritty, dark, crime drama down pat. It’s nice to see him step away from his typical police crime drama genre, and tackle something with a lot more heart. While the performances are tremendous, I will be interested in seeing how this movie translates to audiences. It might be one of those movies that doesn’t do a killing at the box office, after the first week of release, but might make a late comeback during awards season. I wasn’t sure why they had Billy Hope spitting out blood throughout the movie? Were they trying to indicate he has some health issue? They never ended up exploring that unfortunately. Could have made his character arc more dramatic had they delve into the bleeding from the mouth.
Runtime: 123 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2015
A Stiff Left Hook To The Oscar Competition
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- I rate Southpaw - 9.5/109.5/10