Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw has its moments of gripping and hard-hitting drama, led with powerful force by a ripped Jake Gyllenhaal, but the film struggles breaking the boxing mold, despite being far more gritty and well-acted than most sports films.
Antoine Fuqua‘s Southpaw is an R-rated gritty sports drama, not just surrounding the world of professional boxing, but the world of one man as he learns to not only control himself, but the decisions that he can make and the people that he can effect.
Southpaw may not be the most original sports film, but Kurt Sutter‘s bleak and hopeless script, combined with Fuqua’s no-bullshit direction and a career-best performance by Jake Gyllenhaal make Southpaw a visceral beauty, painted with bloodstains, broken bones and raw emotions.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of the most intense boxers around. He literally puts his body first in almost every fight, which rewards him with money and championships, but also an aching body that’s suffering just as much inside as it is outside, especially when a tragedy forces his hand and kicks him all the way past the curb and into the filthy gutter.
Hope is without hope and he stubbornly realizes that every great man must learn to rise on his own and fight for what matters the most in his life.
Trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) picks up Hope after he’s more than crashed and burned and together the two wage an all-out war on their own demons of life, with Billy hoping to be reunited with his daughter.
Antoine Fuqua‘s Southpaw follows a very familiar path — a path that many boxing-centered films struggle with breaking out from and I’m here to be as clear as possible when I say that Southpaw rarely breaks from the norm in terms of its story and pacing beats.
It gets downright ridiculous at times as it struggles dealing with such thick material in the most pedestrian of ways, but luckily for Fuqua there’s a knockout performance by Jake Gyllenhaal that keeps the film punching far past its expiration date.
Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter originally scripted the film with Eminem in mind to star, yet even thinking about anyone besides Gyllenhaal would be a sin, because he really does deliver one of his finest performances yet.
Gyllenhaal’s Hope is a loose-cannon – a man with a serious temper and lots of issues in regards to processing his own raw emotions. Hope has always had his life steered in one direction or another, which makes things extremely hectic when he’s suddenly left all alone to juggle not just his life, but the life of his daughter.
The physical transformation might be the most obvious selling point of Gyllenhaal’s strict portrayal of the boxing bad boy Billy Hope, but his emotional chops are just as impressive if not more.
Watching Billy overcome so much makes for an inspiring film, even if things are slightly predictable.
Sutter’s edgy and hopeless script mixed with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua‘s direction makes for a unique combination of visual rawness and storytelling that comes with absolutely no bullshit.
Fuqua is no stranger to filming bleak material that can be borderline depressing at times, but luckily for him Sutter’s script does come with occasion bright lights.
Sure, Southpaw takes advantage of those bright lights and skips a few beats here and there, but it still mostly works.
Rachel McAdams might have one of the smallest roles in the film, yet her character drives the film forward so strongly. McAdams’ scenes tug at the heart strings in ways that will make a grown man cry.
Unfortunately, Forest Whitaker‘s success is much less impressive, with Whitaker essentially phoning in a crazy old ex boxer with a past for wanting success. Sure, his character is a vital key to Hope’s eventual climb back to the top, but Whitaker is given very little and he does even less with it. It’s my only real gripe with the film that I wanted so badly to be able to look past, but Whitaker pretty much stalls the film’s entire middle act.
The film still works though, despite its constant struggles with breaking the boxing film mold. It works because of how far it’s willing to go to tell its story and because of Gyllenhaal’s A-list performance that transforms him into a new man. He fights more than demons in the closet in this film and seeing that happen live is worth the price of admission, even if Fuqua’s direction never quite manages to overcome Sutter’s scattered script, filled with boxing cliches, yet moments of raw emotion that feel so real and organic.
Southpaw is the kind of film that goes toe-to-toe with other boxing classics just fine, holding its own through most of the rounds, but eventually it’ll be time for a knockout and unfortunately Sutter’s script doesn’t deliver and Fuqua’s direction fails to overcompensate for the slack, resulting in a film that can stand its own, but might not win when it comes to calling for the judges to score.