“What Happened? What did you do to get here? What is that you did, nobody else, that got you here now?”
Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the reigning junior middleweight boxing champion, has an impressive career, a loving wife and daughter, and a lavish lifestyle. However, when tragedy strikes, Billy hits rock bottom, losing his family, his house and his manager. He soon finds an unlikely savior in Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a former fighter who trains the city’s toughest amateur boxers. With his future on the line, Hope fights to reclaim the trust of those he loves the most.
Boxing is a head game, there’s little reward to flash and flamboyance. Points go to hitting and avoiding hits. It’s methodical, footwork, breathing, accuracy, stamina, and reaction. The ultimate question is how do you respond when you get hit? What do you do when you get knocked down and the count begins? 1, You fall to the ground in a daze, everything goes black.. 2, you lay there blinking, twitching, regaining awareness.. 3, eyes open, everything is blurry, the crowd noise starts to seep in as a dull roar.. 6, you motion to get up, dizzy, knees weak, the crowd roars.. 8, you stand tall heads up and composure is regained.. 9 the focus is back you hear your corner, your friends, family, and you know it’s time to get back in the fight. So is the story in Antoine Fuqua’s latest film Southpaw. Fuqua’s story is perfectly paralleled with the sport of boxing, that is methodical, technical, and fluid, but unoriginal and short of surprises.
There are very few narrative risks taken in Southpaw, taking a more traditional route of an athlete fallen on hard times in the wake of tragedy, looking for a chance at redemption to earn back the trust and love of his daughter. The whole film can be predicted straight from the trailer. While this film is not exactly groundbreakingly original, it’s not about reinventing the wheel, but more providing a sturdy base to allow for significant character development. Harking back to his days writing for the successful TV series Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter provides an amazingly deft tale of ultimate redemption, and the ability of mans children to save them. Just like Sons of Anarchy, Southpaw follows the somber, violent path of a man on redemption road with his family is his sights as his the ultimate prize. Sutter always seems to find the crossroads of aggression and emotion, and boxing seems to be the perfect medium to allow for such tension.
Gyllenhaal transforms as he’s apt to doing in his roles. He absolutely disappears into Billy Hope, drawing inspiration from Rocky and in some cases even rapper Eminem (Both Hope and Em had rough childhoods, uniquely strong bonds with their daughters, and are ultimately controversial figures) which is why Eminem’s newest song is a strong anthem for this film. Hope unravels before our eyes due to a tragedy following a whirlwind of uncontrollable rage that leads to issues with acceptance. He fails to take responsibility for his actions, and deals with resentment from his daughter who shared the same loss and grief, but also lost her father along the way. In a story ripe with predictable plot devices and cringe inducing motivational montages, Gyllenhaal stands out, just as he did in the exhilarating Nightcrawler, but in a much more subdued and emotional performance. Other stand outs include Forest Whitaker, who manages to drum up his inner Mr. Miyagi, or maybe it was Mickey from Rocky, or was it Yoda. Whitaker’s character is little more than the typical mentor, but Whitaker is a revelation. He is incredible, emotional and visceral even when his character arc is predictable. Oona Laurence as Leila was surprisingly impressive, and has a solid rapport with Gyllenhall providing some of the films stand out moments. If nothing else, Southpaw is a character building story that serves as a performance vehicle for it’s impressive cast.
Southpaw is an immensely heavy handed film. No surprises, a script from Kurt Sutter is dark and tempestuous, but sometimes it just all feels way too brooding. There are so many instances of tragedy, that the film starts to bow from the emotional baggage it’s harboring. Like a great boxer, it lands one body blow after another to it’s audience taking out the legs and heart. This movie will beat you down and test your spirit from the opening scene. Fuqua highlights the personal struggle with hyper realistic cinematography. The best shots are during the boxing scenes where the choreography is as good as we’ve seen in a fighting film since Gavin O’connor’s Warrior. Sutter will test your emotional stamina, but Fuqua will lift the audience with an epic tone, shedding light on the otherworldly dark material.
The pacing of the film always feels so off. The opening act burns a hole thru the audience at breakneck speed. We see Billy Hope taking punches to the dome repeatedly, Rocky Balboa style, as he fights for his title defense with his wife looking on. The film unfolds aggressively from there introducing a set of characters that may be minor, but are pivotal to the story. The issue is that there is little time developing any of the side characters and so they spend a majority of their screen time chewing scenery. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson gives the illusion that his character is multi dimensional, but we soon find out he’s one note. The entourage of our lead are all the typical leeches say for one member who takes some abuse, but never gets any real appreciation for his loyalty and is eventually shunned to obscurity and largely forgotten. The films body, or second act, unfold at a meticulous and methodical pace. Easily the best beats come from the meat of the movie, except for a few ridiculous and manipulative plot ends involving cheap sentimental emotional grabs meant to induce tears, but are about as subtle as a gunshot. Then of course the uber predictable third act, which gives us our classic training montage and the glory of redemption and reinvention.
The script is both a highlight and a detriment in Southpaw. Sutter is able to create a greek tragedy of sorts with his melodramatic story, and an incredible family dynamic, but ultimately it becomes too heavy handed and far too predictable. Fuqua raises some impressive performances from his leads and provides some levity in the cinematography, but the pacing seems a bit all over the place which poses problems in establishing a cohesive tone. The performances of our two leads are as fantastic as you could ask for, given the scripts shortcomings in dialogue. Unfortunately the film settles on a series of monologues in place of subversive or observational banter. Southpaw is a heavy film, and is difficult to watch, not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s an emotionally grating one. It will wear you down from start to finish and make you feel like you just went 12 rounds. Some would argue that’s what great art will do, it will try you and make you leave feeling as though you’ve been through an event. In that respect Southpaw is a massive success. In the end, although predictable, manipulative, and heavy handed, Southpaw works as a performance piece, a story of redemption, and a study of the family dynamic when felled by great tragedy. It will beat you down, but as the great Rocky said, “It ain’t how hard you can hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
3.4/5 Not Bad Bro