There is a scene in Southpaw where Forest Whitaker, who plays boxing coach Tick Willis, tells his new protégé Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) that boxing isn’t physical; it’s all a mental game. And at that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder where I must have heard this line before. Well, if you’ve seen any boxing movie ever made, from Raging Bull to Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, the line should ring as familiar as every narrative beat or character arc in Southpaw. To say Southpaw brings nothing new to the genre would be an understatement. It’s about as formulaic a boxing movie as they come, but there are a number of things that elevate this film from feeling like a rehash of genre clichés and more like a familiar story told really well. For one, Jake Gyllenhaal continues to show that he is a top tier actor and director Antoine Fuqua continues to take generic ideas, give them some unique flair, and present it with style so that you remember why you liked it in the first place.
Southpaw begins with Billy Hope already rich and famous defending his heavyweight title. As he prepares for his big fight, it’s easy to pinpoint that Hope isn’t exactly the most mentally stable person in the room. He’s got a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), a loving daughter (Oona Laurence), and a loyal crew, but his anger is what drives him in the ring and off the ring. (Stop me if this already sounds like the Jake La Motta story.) Billy’s wife, Maureen, is the one who keeps him grounded. Thus, when she is accidentally murdered by a stray bullet days later, Billy’s life crumbles to rags like a ripple effect. He loses his boxing license from hitting a referee, his daughter is taken into child services, and his manager (Curtis Jackson) drops him from his roster. So in order to prove he can be a better father, Billy has to learn how to control his anger. Enter Forest Whitaker.
The riches to rags back to riches formula that Southpaw employs means that the film is entirely predictable. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t work as a decent, albeit formulaic story with some great performances. Front and centre is Jake Gyllenhaal. His turn in Nightcrawler – one of 2014’s best films – as a sociopathic camera operator showed that Gyllenhaal’s pretty boy good looks can disappear if the role calls for a ferocity that borders on terrifying. In Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is so energetically vicious that he completely disappears into the character. Even his abs looks like they could rip your throat out. And while the actors around him, particularly Whitaker and young Oona Laurence, are enjoyable to watch, it’s Gyllenhaal that elevates their performances. The only one that seems to be struggling is Curtis Jackson, and that’s mainly because his dialogue is often spoken so fast it’s inaudible at times, but also because his character isn’t as developed as it should have been. Jackson is given a lot of screen time in the beginning and then dropped for most of it when it almost seems like he could have made a bigger impact on the story.
Yet as great as Gyllenhaal is, the other star of Southpaw is the director, Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua seems to be the go to name for Hollywood when it comes to taking generic material and giving it a shelf life longer than the time it takes a direct to video release to hit the discount bin. Here, Fuqua injects a gritty, realistic energy into the film. The boxing scenes feel like you’re watching a boxing pay per view but with even cooler camera angles. The dramatic scenes are shot with a lot of handheld (that’s handheld, not shaky-cam; there is a difference) close ups. It’s also Fuqua that seems intent on making his actors cry and scream a lot, which tends to make the drama feel like D-R-A-M-A, but it works for the tone of the overall picture. Like The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua makes Southpaw into a movie that’s far more enjoyable than it had any right to be.
Nevertheless, Southpaw’s biggest flaw that keeps it from ever becoming a great film is that it just feels too familiar. You will become invested in the story and the characters. I rarely ever looked at my watch. When the credits roll, you will leave satisfied. But you can’t get too excited about recommending it to anyone because once you explain the general premise, the immediate response you will most likely get is, “so Raging Bull but with Jake Gyllenhaal?” And that’s not generally a good selling point, despite that Raging Bull rules and Jake Gyllenhaal is awesome. But overall, Southpaw is a redemption story that is engaging and satisfying while it lasts.