The right casting can often make all the difference when it comes to a slightly generic film. In the case of Southpaw, while you can tell that this was initially designed as a starring vehicle for rapper Eminem (who contributes to the soundtrack instead), having Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead boosts this in a rather big way. This movie is fairly standard issue when it comes to the boxing genre, but it does it in an effective enough way to recommend. The thing is, it’s just solid in all regards except one (well, two technically, but more on that later), which happens to be Gyllenhaal. He is excellent, intense in a way that’s almost disturbing, as well as completely believable as a fighter. In a slightly better movie, he’s a definite Oscar contender, but with this solid yet unspectacular one from solid yet unspectacular filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, that’s an iffier proposition. He’s undeniably the highlight of Southpaw, giving you a reason to once again look at a boxer’s struggles and successes both inside the ring and out. This one is fairly visceral for sure, but it doesn’t offer up too much that we haven’t already seen before. As such, it’s notable really only for Gyllenhaal. He makes Southpaw a film worth seeing, plain and simple. He just can’t make it a great one on his own, sadly.
When we first meet Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) he’s in the midst of a boxing match that will firmly establish him as one of the greats. He wins the fight, but takes an awful beating, something that his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) indicates happens too often. His long time friend and manager Jordan Mains (Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent) ignores that in the pursuit of paydays for them both, but Maureen is in Billy’s ear to take some time off. He’s rich, the Junior Middleweight champion of the world, and an inspiration, as he rose from the system as an orphan to where he is now. Billy loves Maureen and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), but boxing is just about all he knows. That becomes even more apparent when a tragedy I won’t spoil occurs within his family, changing his dynamic with both Maureen and Leila forever. It also takes his mind firmly off boxing, leading to his entourage, as well as Jordan, abandoning him. The riches go away, and Billy is left with nothing. It’s then that he seeks out a trainer named Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help get his head right. His personal life is in the gutter, but if he can get his professional life back on track, perhaps he can rebuild his world as best he can. Is the plot fairly generic? Yes, but it’s done decently well enough, while Gyllenhaal elevates it.
By now it almost goes without saying that Jake Gyllenhaal is one of our generation’s most gifted actors. While he’s not on the level here that he was last year with Nightcrawler, he’s excellent all the same. With a chiseled physique that’s as notable a body transformation as he’s ever made, Gyllenhaal takes away much of his charisma and charm to play a blunt instrument from the streets. Barely literate, almost punch drunk, and probably less intelligent than his young daughter, not to mention his wife, Billy is a character that’s all about body language and action. It’s a new challenge for Gyllenhaal, but one that he easily masters. It’s not worthy of an Oscar, but if he winds up with a nomination for this work, I won’t complain. Again, he’s the highlight, but the secret weapon I haven’t mentioned yet is Rachel McAdams, who nearly steals the first act away from Gyllenhaal. It’s their chemistry that makes her so good here, as on her own she’s not quite as impressive as she is. McAdams is very good though, showing business end of Billy’s operation as well as the personal side we wouldn’t see otherwise. Her part changes before the midway point though, so she lacks the full screen time needed to really make a play, or else I’d say she should be one of many in the hunt for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Curtis Jackson/50 Cent is your generic sleazy manager, while Forest Whitaker is your generic inspirational trainer. Both are fine, but unexceptional (though Whitaker has a strong moment or two). Oona Laurence is also in and out of the film, but while she’s there she’s an effective enough young actress. Supporting players here include Naomie Harris, Rita Ora, Victor Ortiz, and more, but it’s really Gyllenhaal you pay attention to.
Director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t do anything particularly great or terrible here. It’s very much a workmanlike outing from him, though considering his hit or miss filmography, this still ranks towards the top of it. He does get a compelling score from the late James Horner and cinematography from DP Mauro Fiore that effectively apes an HBO boxing telecast, so the technical aspects of Southpaw are on point. The script by Kurt Sutter is all about grit and intensity, but it also loves sports cliches a little too much. I’m not sure if Fuqua needed a more unique script in order to make this shine or if Sutter needed a more visionary director, but they both settle for good instead of great. Outside of Gyllenhaal (and to a lesser extent McAdams), everyone does.
Overall, Southpaw is solid enough entry into this genre, uninterested in differentiating itself from the pack but also able to effectively tell its story. Having this performance from Gyllenhaal did wonders. Eminem in the role just wouldn’t have been the same, and that’s putting it mildly. If you love boxing dramas, Gyllenhaal, or just sports movies in general, this should have some appeal. Just keep in mind that this isn’t the next coming of Raging Bull or anything like that. Southpaw is a film I don’t have a problem recommending, but outside of Gyllenhaal, expectations do need to be kept somewhat in check.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!