A PREDICTABLE, BUT POWERFUL ENDEAVOR
Everyone loves a good redemption / comeback story. It’s almost considered human nature to sympathize with a tale of an individual, faced with a downfall of overwhelming odds, and that individual’s ultimate rise back to success and prosperity. It’s a tale as old as time and, in the world of cinematic movies, has been played through the ages of moviemaking, crafting a new incarnation ever so often for a new generation audience. Now director Antoine Fuqua and actor Jake Gyllenhaal step into the ringing of the box film genre with the comeback movie Southpaw. Does the feature rise in the end or is it too much of a redemption retread to care about?
Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), growing up with no family and forced into the foster care system, has forged himself into a boxing champion, claiming an undefeated record and massing a fortune through his career. Billy’s devoted wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is concerned for her husband’s future, hoping that his last victory bout will be his last to preserve time with her and their daughter Lelia (Oona Laurence). Attending a charity event, Billy, baited by rival boxer contender Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez), let’s his anger get the best of him, ensuing a violent brawl that ends in tragedy. In a haze of depression and self-destruction rage, Billy’s fortune is depleted due to mismanagement and his boxing manager Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) abandons him, turning towards Miguel for a more profitable management acquisition. When Lelia is taken away and placed in the foster care home, a disgraced Billy, seeking redemption, turns to boxer gym owner Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker), who looks to teach the former boxing champ his own personal fundamentals necessary to piece his career and life back together again.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I said above, everyone love a comeback story. The history of movies is littered with this premise (especially sport films) such as The Champ, The Fighter, Raging Bull, Warrior, and all the Rocky movies to name a few. This genre of movies can be a little conventional or clichéd with each new entry, but each one brings with something new to the table. I initial saw the trailer for Southpaw and dismissed it as just another generic boxing movie. However, after seeing the movie, Southpaw, while still playing the standard boxing troupe, is hard-hitting entertainment with the movie’s main lead delivering an incredible performance.
Kurt Sutter, the creator behind the television show Sons of Anarchy, pens the script for Southpaw. Similar to Sons, Sutter screenplay is a mixture of classic drama and gritty modern day realism. To its effect, it works, offering viewers an examination of the life of a professional boxer while also looking sudden turned of life after tragedy. Try as Sutter might, the downside of Southpaw’s screenplay is its premise is slightly conventional, hitting all the familiar beats and elements found cinematic sports movies (mostly the boxing films). The result is a film that’s little bit predictable as one can surmise where the movie is heading and the overall outcome by thirty minute mark. I usually do like these types of movies, so I don’t personally mind this as much as some people would as the movie is presented very well and has enough momentum from being a humdrum cliché. Basically, if you’re looking comeback / redemption story that’s brand spanking new and original, then Southpaw isn’t for you.
Helming this project is director Antoine Fuqua, director of such films as Training Day, King Arthur, Tears of the Sun, and The Equalizer. Fuqua tells a good story through the cinematic lens (thanks to cinematographer Mauro Fiore) with right camera angles and lighting techniques to bring a feature film to life, showcasing life in and out of the boxing ring and the polar opposites of social order. It also helps that Fuqua decided to focus more on the dynamics of the film’s characters rather than the fighting in the ring (which bookends the film on both ends and is brutally great with a lot of blood, sweat and tears). There are some pacing issues that arise in Southpaw, most notably towards end of the first act and during the second act, with scenes that indulge too much its excessive. Things do pick back up by the time the third act arrives, but the film probably could’ve been better served with a good 10 minutes shaved off its final running time. With Fuqua and his filmmaking team steadying the course, Southpaw, despite its shortcomings, is elevated within its own genre, trumping the story’s recycled substance with a sleek cinematic presentation and a primary focus its main characters,
In compensating for its commonplace narrative, character portrayals are crucial to these types of movies and Southpaw’s main lead certainly delivers on that front. Aside from his physical transformation appearance (which is incredible), actor Jake Gyllenhaal excels as the boxer Billy Hope, performing a fantastic and memorable role that’s raw, powerful, and emotional. I can ramble, but, in short, Gyllenhaal absolutely owns the role. Here’s hoping that he gets an oscar nod for this role. He definitely deserves it. Along with Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams lends her talents as Billy’s wife Maureen. Though her part is in the movie isn’t that big, McAdams turns a fine performance of knowing how to take care of pro boxing husband (both public limelight and in the privacy of their home). Forest Whitaker’s ‘Tick’ Willis is perfect role for the seasoned actor, a blend of classic archetype variations and Whitaker’s own talent of creating compassion and humanity for his character.
The more supporting actors in the movie offer solid performances, but their characters are generally flat. This can be seeing with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson’s Jordan, Billy’s dubious boxing promoter, or Naomie Harris’s Angela, a social worker who tries to help Billy mend the bridges with Lelia, or even Billy’s rival boxer contender Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar played by Miguel Gomez. These characters could’ve had a large role in the movie, elevating their position to be something more than just supporting stock characters. However, out of the all the secondary and support characters, the one who trumps them all is the breakout performance from Oona Laurence. She truly captures the frustration and struggle on a young girl who has personal trauma suddenly forced upon her. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are fantastic to watch (big kudos for Laurence).
Lastly, the music in Southpaw is actually pretty good. While the movie has a couple of “get psyched” rap / hip hop music to get you in the mood and pumped up, but the movie score’s is good as well, scored by the recently deceased film composer James Horner. Horner’s music for Southpaw, while not as big and dramatically filled as some of his more famous musical pieces like Titanic, Apollo 13, and Avatar, is presented to be intoned with movie, offering pieces of beautiful somber tones and light inspirational flushers.
Southpaw, on its surface, is a paint-by-numbers boxing drama. However, looking beyond its façade, the movie is more of a character drama and a man’s shot at redemption. Sure, the movie falters with some odd pacing and utilizing a commonplace theme in the boxing sport venue, but the film seems to stand tall and proud, thanks to its director, a solid and standout performance from its main lead, and some great acting from its supporting cast members. Fans of these type of movies will thoroughly enjoy it (I personally did. I liked it better than most movies I’ve seen recently), while others might think it’s just “okay”. In short, Southpaw is a captivating movie that surely demands your attention and might even tug on your heartstrings as you root for Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope and his emotional journey back into the ring.