I love a good boxing movie. From the early films such as Rocky and Raging Bull to the more recent masterpieces The Fighter and Million Dollar Baby, the sport of boxing, as a cinematic device, is special because it centers on one person, sometimes two, and allows us to tag along on their emotional journey. In just two hours of film, you can see and feel every moment of frustration, turmoil, happiness, love, and hatred leading up to the final fight. Once that fight arrives, whether it is in the ring or otherwise, they have your complete attention, depending on the actor of course. While every film I have mentioned so far has main characters that you may or may not relate to, their lives are so intriguing that you either want to see them enjoy some manner of success or at least be there for the eventual demise. In fact, these movies have less do with boxing and more to do with studying flawed characters overcoming adversity, accompanied by a brilliant score. Such is the case with our latest film.
In Southpaw, directed by Antoine Fuqua, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an undefeated, wealthy boxing champion with a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter. After his wife dies in a shooting accident, the emotional shortcomings of Billy surface and he begins to make destructive mistakes. Not only does he lose his boxing manager (Curtis Jackson) and his career, his debts cause the bank to auction his home and belongings and child protective services take away his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). At the end of his rope, Billy must now learn to make peace with himself and work towards getting his daughter back. He finds guidance in a boxing gym run by a gruff, wise instructor named Tick (Forest Whitaker). Tick teaches Billy to control his emotions in and out of the ring. Together they learn that second chances are only as real as you want them to be.
I was very impressed by the slow, methodical pace of the underlying story between Billy and Leila. The boxing matches become secondary and all you really want to see are these two together again. Not an easy goal, but if there is one thing Billy is focused on it is his daughter.
While we see all the pain and suffering that Billy is going through, we also see that bleed into Leila’s life. How her emotions begin to turn against her father. She resents him for all their tragic misfortunes and her only solace is in the friends she makes at the care facility she calls home. A girl once shielded from her father’s fights now facing traumatic situations and a father holding onto that shaken, but enduring bond between them.
If you wanted to make comparisons, you could say this movie is like Rocky 3 in reverse, riches to rags story. Except with the shot at redemption placed in the third act, where it belongs. The comparisons end there because Billy Hope is not Rocky Balboa. While Rocky’s wife helped him become a better man, Billy’s wife had a harder time getting through to him about what is important. The rewards of success further cloud this issue. With his family separated and his career in shambles, this film could not emphasize the need to reevaluate his priorities enough.
The chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker is remarkable. Fuqua has a way of making his characters feel like old friends, even when they argue. The conversations between these two come off so naturally that you become further engaged in the outcome. These are not the only standout performances in the movie because Oona Laurence’s scenes and interactions with Gyllenhaal are impressive for such a new actor. The emotional transition that Laurence makes during this movie is terrific. She exudes empathy and compassion on screen and I imagine has a lot more talent to show us in the future.
I could not possibly review a boxing movie without bringing up the music. Besides a few well-placed rap songs, the most impactful sounds are courtesy of the late James Horner. Horner’s musical score adds depth to an already emotional film and makes several moments shine brighter by its presence. Bill Conti’s work on the original Rocky was a work of art and I feel the same way about this piece. When we see Billy in the ring for the last time, the actions that led to this moment build up our excitement, but the music takes it to another level.
Southpaw could be Antoine Fuqua’s best work to date. I always feel that his work skirts the border between a superficial melodrama and a heartfelt story of flawed people. In the end, it works and works well. The music and cinematography compliment this film. Forest Whitaker is great and plays a more subtle version of Mickey, no offense to Burgess Meredith. Gyllenhaal gives an outstanding performance as well. His range and ability continue to impress. The new on-screen gem Oona Laurence is also a pleasure. Even if you are not a fan of boxing, this movie will still entertain you. It tackles heavy issues and somehow is fun and humorous at times. I recommend you see this film in theaters for not only the reasons stated above, but also to hear one of Horner’s final works in surround sound. It’s worth it.
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Oona Laurence
Runtime: 123 Minutes