PLOT: A boxing champ, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), goes to pieces following a tragedy, losing his title, his home and the custody of his daughter. Broke and friendless, Billy must repair his fractured career if he ever hopes to reunite his family.
REVIEW: Antoine Fuqua’s SOUTHPAW seems like an ideally timed movie. This is the time of year when tent pole fatigue starts to set in a bit and audiences start looking for a solid piece of counter-programming that’s lighter on carnage and heavier on emotion and good old fashioned storytelling. SOUTHPAW is exactly that type of film. A contemporary spin on the classic Hollywood underdog/boxing melodrama, SOUTHPAW is crowd-pleasing entertainment that should make a mint at the box office, with very few other real contenders out there to compete with it for a solid adult audience.
SOUTHPAW has many aces up its sleeve, from the confident, assured direction by Antoine Fuqua – who’s as comfortable helming gritty drama (TRAINING DAY, BROOKLYN’S FINEST) as he is directing tent pole action (OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, THE EQUALIZER) – to the hip Eminem soundtrack and screenplay by Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter. All in all, this is an exceedingly well-packaged melodrama, which manages to hit all the classic boxing movie beats without coming off as a ROCKY-clone or too schmaltzy – like THE CHAMP. This has a whole lot of grit, and the struggles of Billy Hope don’t feel that far removed from real pro-athletes, many of whom are not always the easiest people to root for.
More than anything, SOUTHPAW is Jake Gyllenhaal’s movie. Fuqua’s always been a solid actor’s director, and the entire film is clearly tailored to Gyllenhaal’s performance, with minimal directorial flourishes to get in the way. While the film moves at a dynamic pace, scenes aren’t rushed along either. While the trailers have emphasized Gyllenhaal’s shredded boxer physique and the character’s rage, there are plenty of subtle moments when Billy’s on his own with his guard down. After PRISONERS, NIGHTCRAWLER and now SOUTHPAW Gyllenhaal’s really becoming one of our best actors, and this allows him to really convincingly play tough-as-nails alpha-male type, and it’s a pretty thrilling showcase for his considerable talents.
Despite being dominated by Gyllenhaal’s method-like performance, SOUTHPAW also boasts a terrific – if atypical – supporting cast. Rachel McAdams is absolutely perfect as Billy’s eternally loyal wife. Clearly the brains behind his career, she expertly mixes toughness (she’s supposed to have grown up “in the system”) with vulnerability and the chemistry between her and Gyllenhaal is white-hot. This, paired with her work on True Detective, is going to make a lot of people see McAdams in a new light, with her bringing a real earthiness to the part. Likewise, Forest Whitaker takes what could have been a generic part as the father-figure trainer and gives it real gravitas and humor, with him bringing a slight sense of distrust towards Billy’s motivations into the mix, making him feel like a truly well-rounded character. Another person who gives a surprisingly solid performance is 50 Cent as Gyllenhaal’s duplicitous promoter. While the rapper’s found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately, his work here is actually quite solid and subtle and he really seems invested in the part.
Next to Gyllenhaal and Adams, the one who’s likely to walk away with a lot of buzz is young Oona Laurence as Billy’s daughter. It’s a tremendously naturalistic performance for a child actor, with the cuteness dialed way-back, and the reality of her dire situation with Billy given prominence. For once this seems like an honest portrait of a kid caught up in a bad situation with their parents, with her expertly conveying both her love for Billy and her anger at the fact that he’s jeopardizing both of their futures.
If SOUTHPAW has any failings it’s that after a rough and tumble first act, it does ease into a more classic Hollywood-style underdog story, but even still it’s never anything less than totally engrossing. There’s a reason why the boxing genre has always been one of Hollywood’s favorites and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Gyllenhaal’s RAGING BULL as some might have prematurely predicted based on the trailer, it’s still absolutely gripping and a career highlight for both Gyllenhaal and Fuqua.
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