“Mom always said it was us who took care of you.”
Well, at least this main event mostly delivered, unlike that May 2nd one. Light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has made his way from the tough foster home environment of Hell’s Kitchen to the bright lights inside the squared circle. At 43-0, he holds his division’s crown jewel and has been able to provide a comfortable life for his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), also from Hell’s Kitchen, and daughter Leila (Ooma Lawrence). He’s taken a beating, sure, but he’s been awfully strong at giving them out as well.
Always an emotional fireball, Billy emotions become harder to control once life gives him an uppercut he couldn’t have planned for. His actions in the aftermaths of these tragedies have lost him custody of Lelia, his finances, and his boxing career. Hope seems non-existent at this point, but Billy tries to find it from inner-city boxing trainer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). The fight to redemption will not be an easy one.
If one is watching Southpaw and expecting a unique boxing story, that would be unwise. Yours truly enjoys boxing, but honestly, the sport, itself often featuring its best fighters coming from nothing to something, lends itself to the same type of story treatment that exists in the Rocky movies, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, etc. The trailer is, for all intents and purposes, the movie in Southpaw. No feinting of punches.
For most movies, that would be a bad thing. But even with well-worn story gloves, Southpaw manages to land most of its punches, primarily because of the work done by the cast. At this point, Jake Gyllenhaal may be one of the surest things in the business when it comes to turning in top-notch performances. Billy Hope is another role that he can put on his ever-impressive resume.
He is adept at displaying the raw emotion and fighting spirit his character carries in certain scenes, but also the lack of equilibrium that is represented by stammering his words, a probable result from one too many shots to the head. Undoubtedly, it is more stellar thespian work, but it would be a surprise to see an Oscar nomination only because the Hope character isn’t as layered as the people he played in, say Nightcrawler or Prisoners. If he didn’t get one in those, why here? But you never know about how other things are going to play out on the horizon.
He’s joined by a few others, some well known and some lesser known. Whitaker is essentially Paulie from Rocky, but he is needed to balance Hope out and truly build him back up, doubling as the trainer and the wise sage. Rachel McAdams is strong is Hope’s wife; not sure if the chemistry is tight with Gyllenhaal, though. The daughter part of the fractured father-daughter dynamic is done well by young Ooma Lawrence. Even Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is better than expected as his character amounts to a poor man’s Don King without the vocabulary.
They all, especially Gyllenhaal of course, combine to elevate a been-there, done-that script. If Southpaw came out in the 70’s, or even the 80’s, it may and probably would be a critical darling. Alas, this is 2015, and the film doesn’t have the benefit. It is not a bad story, per se, but at times it and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) seem overly concerned with getting to the saddening moments without regard for pacing (too slow at points) or logical transitions (too fast at points). The story igniter that makes Billy spiral is hardly even explained. Even the great score, for example, done by the late James Hormer, feels like it is turned up to 11 just to make sure the audience doesn’t forget how to feel.
However, at the end of the day it doesn’t completely strip away the desire to see Hope rise back to the top, but when you’re waiting for Billy to put it back together, these things are noticed. It all builds to a finale that too goes as one would probably expect, but it is directly wonderfully and with little to no evidence of stunt doubles, further highlighting the investment that Gyllenhaal puts into his roles.
Southpaw comes with the expected stance and fight plan most boxing films bring to the fight, which makes it easy to scout. But, at least it knows what it is, and it still wins a lot of rounds based on talent alone.
Photo credits go to g-unitfamily.com, nydailynews.com, and blogs.indiewire.com.
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