As sports films go, boxing is no doubt one of the most popular subject matters. Past films such as Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Fighter (2010) have proven that both on and off the canvas there is drama, conflict and glory to be found. Written by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring one of the most highly rated actors, Jake Gyllenhaal, as you can imagine I went to see Southpaw with great anticipation.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated world champion. He has it all; success, a loving wife (Rachel McAdams), a young daughter (Oona Laurence), not to mention one of the largest homes I think I’ve ever seen put to screen. However, when Billy loses everything, he must dig deep and rebuild his career and his life, with the help of a cynical trainer (Forrest Whitaker). So far, in terms of plot, nothing too original then, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative. While the story may contain typical cliches, it embraces them rather than trying to hide them. With most films of this genre we know what we are letting ourselves in for, but it’s seeing these downtrodden characters build themselves back up we enjoy watching. It’s inspiring and leaves us feeling satisfied when the credits role. This is something the film does well, hitting all the right notes at the right time, to give us the journey we crave.
What Southpaw has up it’s sleeve is a lead actor with such dedication and presence, who lifts it from an average sports film to an intricate character piece. Gyllenhaal gives Billy Hope a sweetness behind the tough exterior, drawing real emotion and empathy from the audience, especially in scenes with his daughter, Leila, played magnificently by Laurence. Normally I find child actors irritating, with over-the-top performances that seem to grate on you whenever they enter the scene, but she maintains an air of subtlety that compliments Gyllenhaal. The rest of the supporting cast that surrounds him also adds depth and realism. McAdams, currently gracing our screens in True Detective, plays his wife, who although clearly enjoys the money earned from his fights, with her jewellery and glamorous dresses, shows real concern for his health and well-being, going so far as to ask him to quit when he’s in his prime. Whitaker and Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson round off the cast as Billy’s new trainer and ex-manager respectively.
Fuqua’s direction is raw and unpolished, giving the film a gritty flavour particularly when it comes to the fight scenes. Whereas most would go for the unnecessary shaky cam to create physicality and motion, Fuqua opts for wider shots to allow the eye to see the action clearly, every so often switching to a visceral first person view as the punches come flying in toward the camera. These shots were incredible to watch, giving you a taste of what it must be like to be in that moment, the sound of the crowd cheering and the man standing before you ready to knock your lights out.
As a fan of boxing myself, as well as its subsequent films, I enjoyed Southpaw and revelled in its riches-to-rags-to-redemption story. My only gripe is that maybe the trailers could have held back on a few important plot points which did spoil its impact. Like most other boxing films, it’s not necessary for you be interested in the sport to enjoy this incredibly acted film. Gyllenhaal will suck you in with his powerhouse performance and make you question how long it will be until this man receives the Oscar he so obviously deserves.