In recent years these sort of films have generally been not only of a really high standard but also pretty well received. The likes of Rocky Balboa, Warrior, The Wrestler, Million Dollar Baby all were critically acclaimed and rightly so. Physical hand to hand sports seem to bring out the gritty, complex characters and Southpaw gives it a bloody good go.
Boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhall) was top of the world after winning his championship fight but after being goaded by a rival (Miguel Gomez) at a charity event his wife (Rachel McAdams) is shot and the story then focuses around Billy’s road to sobriety, anger management and reconciliation with his daughter on the way back to the ring.
Director Antoione Fuqua, who brought us Training Day, The Equalizer & Olympus has Fallen, tries his best to make this film the gritty complex redemption tale you would expect from an indie film but also exciting enough to appeal to a mass audience, and he falls short. Considering it’s 2 hour run time the story telling at times felt rushed and haphazard given the events that were going on. Fights seem to only be weeks in between each other and Champion Hope goes from losing his wife… then his daughter… to going straight back into the gym after behaving, well, not all that erratically given the circumstances without him going through the turmoil necessary to make it believable. There needed to more focus on our main characters suffering before he starts on his road to redemption. Another example being the death of a secondary character that just happened out of nowhere. There was no build up or emotional significance and ultimately had little impact on what was going on.
That being said the look of the film was great and engaging and the cast nailed all their performances. Gyllenhaal in particular carries this film in a way few could. Any other actor in the lead role and this film would have been just another average cliche’ sports film but his intensity and absolute dedication to this role is a big part of why it works. Shout out must also go to Oona Laurence who played his daughter for being possibly the first child actor I did not hate. Forest Whitaker plays Hope’s new trainer of a run down gym and mentor to get him back on the path to normality and does a really good job. While flawed, he’s given enough time to eek out his back story as to why he is the way he is and has this Mr Myagi kind of wisdom that works and relates to our fallen champion. Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson is the Don King style promoter and while was good when he was on screen, he was forgotten for about half the film and could have done with a little more to vilify him which would have given the finale an even bigger impact.
Speaking of the finale it was good, well choreographed boxing entertainment. The final punch could have been built up more but as a whole the end of the third act worked. It was an ending we all could see coming but part of making a movie mass appealing is to have it be predicatible and cliche, which is a shame in some respects.
It is a solid film where Gyllenhaal shows his ever growing versatility in this predictable and cliche story of a boxers fall and rise from grace. You don’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy this, it looks good, there are strong performances and it is entertaining. The only thing it suffers from is the story telling/predictability, and this stops it being a truly great film.