Southpaw Overcomes Basic Plot With Emotional Punch

A boxing redemption story that plays out exactly how you might expect is elevated above run-of-the-mill status by a strong sense of reality and outstanding performances. Jake Gyllenhaal shines with a body never looking better, a face never looking worse and a performance never more dedicated.

Billy Hope copping some punishment Credit:
Billy Hope copping some punishment Credit:

Southpaw‘ is directed by Antoine Fuqua, famous for ‘Training Day’, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, and Oona Laurence.

The plot is indeed quite standard. A boxer (Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope) at the top of his game has some terrible things happen to him which force him into painful and unfamiliar territory. He pities himself for a while before deciding he needs to fight back and regain everything (almost) that he lost. There are plenty of genre clichés here, right down to the inspirational  training montages which, while necessary are also pointless. However, one must accept that this is how a boxing movie is going to play out the majority of the time because this is how they work best. An unoriginal story can still be a good one if it’s done well and, thankfully, Southpaw is. It’s even better if you don’t watch the trailer before seeing the movie (spoiler overload).

The greatest strength of the film is the authenticity and realism it displays. Every conversation and release of emotion seems to be happening right then and there in the real world, as you stand in the room with the characters. This is so strong that you actually start to feel awkward, like you shouldn’t be listening or watching. In the boxing matches the cinematography takes as far into the ring as it’s possible to get, giving you a first person view of punches coming towards your head and letting you see the blood and sweat fly from all angles.

The cast is amazing in this film. Jake Gyllenhaal is once again incredible portraying not only a champion boxer but a father struggling to reconnect with his child. There is a moment when he’s talking with his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) that is one of the most poignant in the movie. We can see how much this character is really struggling to be a father and the pain it is causing him.

billy and leila

The best thing you can say about Gyllenhaal is that you never see him as Jake Gyllenhaal, you see Billy Hope; an unstable man who doesn’t deal with trauma at all well. There are plenty of moments where you distinctly dislike this character but Gyllenhaal is able to delicately balance his performance so that, inch by inch, you start to come around. By the end you’re cheering from the rooftops for him to succeed.

Forest Whitaker is also great as a retired boxer who trains troubled youths in an attempt to put them on the straight and narrow. He’s also quite a troubled soul and his relationship with Hope and their conversations start to make you think maybe this isn’t a boxing movie after-all, but a movie just about life. Their conversations are at times such intense and rambling affairs you can’t help but believe these conversations have taken place somewhere in real life.

Rachel McAdams too, is fantastic as Hope’s wife, and Laurence is amazing playing Leila who deals with pain in a significantly more mature way than her father.

The score, surprisingly, doesn’t particularly resonate; either when tender or uplifting but this is largely due to us being so engrossed in watching and listening to the character’s. There’s just something gritty and intense about this film that the actors and actresses fulfil to its highest potential.

Gyllenhaal’s main opponent on the boxing side of things is not particularly developed as a character and is uneven at times so it makes it hard to sincerely cheer against him. Sometimes he seems like a reasonable and respectful man, at others a downright villain.

If you can overcome the fact you’ll be able to predict most of the major events in the movie, Southpaw will definitely be worth the watch.

What’s your favourite boxing movie?