In terms of narrative, “Southpaw” plays things safe. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it’s a simple and straightforward redemption story. A boxer goes from rags to riches only to drop back down to rags, and then must rebuild himself. Yes, boxing movies often follow predictable paths but in the case of Fuqua’s picture it’s not just the broad strokes that are the same, every plot point (with the exception of one) comes as no surprise. For all the suffering we see on screen things play out rather smoothly and routinely. However as far as bright spots go, “Southpaw” has Jake Gyllenhaal, and what a bright spot he is.
In the last few years Gyllenhaal has emerged as one of our best working actors. From the obsessive, twitchy detective Loki in “Prisoners,” to the skinny bug eyed creep Lou Bloom in last year’s “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal has incredible range; the ability to be utterly unrecognizable from one role to the next. In “Southpaw” he transforms once again with his raw, explosive portrayal of fictional boxer Billy Hope. It’s unlike any performance he’s ever given and he puts forth every ounce of effort. He exhibits so much intense power and emotion that you can’t take your eyes off him. Billy takes a lot of hits in the movie (his fighting philosophy is: the more I get hit, the angrier I am and the harder I hit) and his reactions to each one look painfully authentic. Watching Billy stumble around post fight, with his swollen eyelid and bleeding forehead, you feel battered and sore as well.
Hope is a mumbly, street-smart boxer from rough circumstances. He’s impulsive and short-tempered but also gentle and compassionate. Beneath those muscles and bruises lies a big softie. Watching him interact with his wife Maureen (Rachael McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence) you see nothing but affection on his front. In the redemption portion of the movie, when Billy loses Leila to child protective services, he displays genuine sensitivity and heartache. Gyllenhaal brings depth, dimension and immense physical presence (he actually bulked up in preparation for the part) to a role that could easily be one note.
Speaking of McAdams, the thirty seven year old actress is also terrific and her role is really the only real refreshing aspect of Kurt Sutter’s predictable script. Instead of being passive or a wet blanket side-ring wife she’s Billy’s smart, assertive confidante. She makes all of the decisions, keeps Billy stable and in line. He’s putty in her hands. Maureen is the dominant one in the relationship and her accidental death early on is what causes Billy’s life to spiral out of control. Without her, Billy is rendered vulnerable and even emasculated. McAdams only has about five or ten minutes of screen time but her presence can be felt in Billy’s anguish and hunger for redemption.
The section featuring Billy’s self destructive behavior in the wake of Maureen’s death is nightmarish and grotesque. I’m not sure grieving has looked this excruciating in a movie before. While the first couple scenes are effective it does begin to feel melodramatic and forced, like Fuqua is screaming: “LOOK! LOOK HOW MUCH HE’S SUFFERING!” We see it, Fuqua. We see it very clearly. And there are only so many sequences of pure anguish one can continually endure in a single sitting. Thankfully, things loosen up a bit when Billy reconnects with old friend Tick Willis, (Forest Whitaker) an ex boxer now running a gym to keep the local youth off the streets. Initially, Tick is simply the grizzled no nonsense, wise-cracking boxing mentor who gives Billy pep talks and forces him to reevaluate his life. Although soon enough we begin to see cracks in his foundation; he’s a wounded soul, full of bitterness and regret. The performance sometimes verges on loopy but Whitaker has gravitas, while also managing to bring nuance and subtle humor to the role.
Also strong in the redemption section is Billy’s up and down relationship with Leila. Father-daughter redemption isn’t a new concept but Fuqua embraces it and develops the relationship. The execution can be shaky at times but Fuqua sticks with it and Gyllenhaal and Lawrence are convincing. Their bond ultimately resonates and the redemption feels deserved.
I wish “Southpaw” had taken more narrative risks. I wish there had been less cliché lines of dialogue. The score by the late James Horner, while moving, is oppressive and gets in the way of the movie--making scenes more melodramatic than they should be. When two characters are having a serious heart-to-heart it’s never good to have a big instrumental score blaring in the background. On the other hand, the fight scenes are visceral and well done. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore uses hand held cameras, guiding us in and out of the ring, bringing us up uncomfortably close and personal with our battered, grieving protagonist.
Yet, the movie’s strengths primarily come from the actors. Without them, “Southpaw” would be much worse. But what a cast! Especially Gyllenhaal. It’s a performance of tremendous highs and his shear commitment to the role is astonishing to behold. It makes you wonder what character he will disappear into next.