While not exactly a knockout, SOUTHPAW packs more than a punch, boosted by some exceptional performances.
Translating emotional stories within the context of sports is often, much like the games themselves, very hit or miss. With boxing being an extremely solitary sport, the genre in particular lends itself to more character-centric storytelling, which can also limit the types of stories it tells.
While the majority of boxing films begin in the shadows of previous heavyweights like Rocky and Raging Bull, many are able to find their own footing and emerge from the shadows, usually led by the performances from their casts. With Southpaw, the film walks the line between familiar and cliche territory, but the performances on display give it the much needed boost to shine through.
With the opening scene of Southpaw, before any exposition is delved into or plot begins to surface, we’re immediately thrown face first into the character of Billy “The Great” Hope. Pure aggression emanating from every pore on his bloodied face, he charges the camera with ferocity, as he defends his Light Heavyweight title.
We soon learn that being an extremely successful fighter has left Billy a bit punch-drunk. Slurring and mumbling words in his everyday speech, his family is beginning to take notice. After a tragedy hits close to home, his success spirals into loss, both financially as he loses his title and riches, and emotionally as he loses custody of his daughter. Both sets of losses are due to his own inability to cope with his struggles.
After hitting rock bottom, Hope must find a way to turn his life around if he ever hopes to regain custody of his daughter. While the story of the successful man hitting his low point and having to turn his life around isn’t original, the film is able to avoid cliche by making some interesting choices in how those themes are explored, which help them feel a little more unique.
Over the last 10 years of his career, actor Jake Gyllenhaal has kept himself busy with unique roles that have allowed him to show off his talent, with each new creation contrasting nicely with the previous performance (one of the only interesting things about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). By now, many are aware of the impressive physical transformation that Gyllenhaal went through, which is on full display. However, the emotional transformation he undergoes is the basis of the story, and is extremely well played with both subtlety and realism, which is due solely to Gyllenhaal’s performance.
In the hands of a lesser actor, the film could very well have ventured into boring and common territory. The role, originally penned by screenwriter Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), was envisioned for rapper Eminem. The story and themes were originally based on his journey with success, depression and fatherhood, all while in the spotlight. When the rapper bowed out of the project to focus on his music career, Gyllenhaal was brought on, and quite frankly the film is better for it.
While there is no doubt the personal nature of the story could have easily been brought to life by Eminem (who more than held his own in his previous film 8 Mile, which was even more closely based on his life), Gyllenhaal’s acting chops are just quite simply more impressive. Having him in this role allows the film to avoid being just another similar tale, elevating it to a more interesting level.
While Sutter’s screenplay doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the genre, what it does is take some of the more cliche aspects and gives them an interesting twist, injecting them with enough new life to avoid the pitfalls of mediocrity.
Director Antoine Fuqua rounded out the rest of his cast with an interesting selection, all of whom bring something great to their roles. Forest Whitaker delivers a nuanced performance as Titus “Tick” Wills, the mentor/trainer who helps Billy on his path to redemption.
While the role itself has been done before, Whitaker plays him as humble yet tough, while also carrying his own demons. The character truly shines whenever he and Gyllenhaal are together on screen.
Rachel McAdams (currently turning in the best work in this newest season of True Detective) makes the most of her unfortunately limited time on screen throughout the film as Billy’s wife, Maureen. She sees the toll that this profession is taking not only on her husband’s body, but on their family as a whole.
Actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is tasked with the role of Jordan, Billy’s longtime promoter and manager. While the character is by no means a stretch for him (Jackson recently entered the world of professional boxing promotion), the rapper adds legitimacy to the role while making it more than just a one-note character.
The true star of the cast, besides Gyllenhaal, is Oona Laurence, playing Hope’s daughter Leila. Only recently transitioning from the stage (where she helped originate the title role in Mathilda the Musical on Broadway), Laurence steals most of the scenes she shares with her much older counterparts. Laurence gives an emotional performance, showcasing the often unseen view of tragedy from a child’s perspective, while also portraying the various emotional stages that come along with it.
Rounding out the cast is Naomie Harris as the social care worker overseeing the visits between Hope and his daughter. It’s a necessary role, and one that Harris plays well, but it would have been nice to see her character given a little more to do than watch their interactions, and provide a bit of exposition here and there.
Director Fuqua has shown a knack for finding interesting ways to tell his stories. With many sports films (particularly boxing), the true secret is to find ways to keep the story interesting, especially for those with no interest in the sport.
With less than a handful of fights throughout the film, Fuqua utilizes the honed and skilled camera crew of HBO Boxing to handle the majority of the camera work for the fight scenes. While this gives many of the shots a very “TV polished” look, Fuqua adds in more distinctive camera angles (including some great first-person shots) during the fights that help differentiate them from previously seen fight footage. For the remainder of the film’s story, Fuqua allows his cast to bring the characters to life, allowing for a very honest look at the world in which it takes place.
Fuqua’s greatest contribution is his pacing, not allowing the narrative to slack and feel boring, while consistently pushing the story forward. The only place where the film feels rushed is on its way to the final climactic match. But even then, it doesn’t hinder the film in a way that it could have in the hands of another “lesser” director. Fuqua is known for getting amazing performances from his casts (seriously, does anyone NOT remember Denzel in Training Day?), and Southpaw continues that record.
Overall, Fuqua’s direction, the performances by the cast, and enough differentiation from standard genre tropes, all provide Southpaw the skills to come out on top.
Watch the Southpaw trailer:
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