A champion boxer loses everything when tragedy strikes his family, and must work hard to recover.
Antoine Fuqua, 2015
When we meet Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) he’s at the top of his game. Overcoming a difficult upbringing in the foster system, he became a boxer and married his childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams). A national champion, he wins a major match while Maureen and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) watch from their mansion home. Everything falls apart when Billy is goaded into a fight with talented, cocky boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). In the chaos, Maureen is shot and killed, shattering Billy’s life. He turns to alcohol and violence to drown his grief, distancing himself from Leila. Ultimately his money, his home, and his daughter are all taken from him, leaving Billy with nothing. He must rebuild his life, seeking help from trainer Tick Willis (Forrest Whitaker) to reenter the boxing world and reclaim his good name.
Southpaw is an interesting movie. It’s a well-made, tight drama, director Antoine Fuqua making the most of boxing movie tropes and getting solid performances out of his cast. The direction is slick and the pacing strong, building tension, sadness, frustration, and triumph at all the right moments. The familial relationships between Billy, Maureen, and Leila are particularly strong, the trio of talented actors bringing out the right notes in their characters. The boxing matches are good, giving the audience a decent sense for what’s going on without talking down to us. The final boxing match is a particularly tense and blood-pumping affair. There’s also a very nice training montage that mostly consists of Miguel Gomez and Jake Gyllenhaal punching things or pushing tires over while shirtless, something you won’t hear me complaining about. And while I know I enjoyed the movie while I watched it, now that I sit down to write about it I can’t remember a whole lot of specific moments. It lacks that magic, that mix of thrills and drama that makes movies like Rocky and Raging Bull classics. Part of this, at least for me, is the incredibly condensed timeline of the movie. The entire thing takes place over a period of just five months. We see Billy have everything, lose it all, and gain it all back in five months. His daughter goes from adoring him to hating him to loving him again. He spirals into deep depression and claws his way out of it. He has three fights: one when he’s on top of the world, one where he’s grieving his wife and loses it all (ONE FIGHT, after winning something like 40 in a row, completely ruins him!), and then one where he regains his title. In five months. It’s insane when you lay it out that way.
I can’t think of this movie now without the knowledge that Eminem was originally slated to play Billy Hope. While I feel like that would have made the movie inferior in terms of its drama and emotional impact, there’s a history to Eminem as a person that would definitely affect how I saw the film as a whole. There’s no question that there’s a race problem with this movie. Our hero is white, with a white family, and yet everyone around him is not. This privilege in terms of his particular success is never addressed. There’s also some casual racism in the film when it comes to the way Escobar is framed in terms of his own background. It’s strange and disappointing, and there’s definitely a sense that this story would have been better told with a PoC at its centre. This isn’t to take away from Gyllenhaal’s performance at all, though. He’s solid as a rock in this movie, creating in Billy a man of few words but a mountain of humanity. Every little twitch and grunt tells us something deep in Billy’s soul. I’ve long been a fan of his work, and his brilliant turn in Nightcrawler last year was criminally overlooked during awards season. All of the supporting cast are very strong, too. 50 Cent pitches his sleazy agent perfectly, Naomie Harris is gorgeous as Leila’s care worker, and in spite of her brief appearance Rachel McAdams functions as the film’s anchor. Oona Laurence is definitely Going Places, her work in this subtle and smart. There’s just that sense that something about Southpaw was lacking from script to screen. It’s not a knockout.
Southpaw on IMDb