********* 7 out of 10 *********
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams
Boxing movies have been a craze for a long time in Hollywood. It is easy to understand why this particular sport makes for a good story. Because it is an individual’s fight. In that ring those two men stand alone; the adrenaline is high, the emotions are going through the roof, and all it comes down to is who remains standing as the barrage of punches keep coming in. Boxing being a contact sport evokes a higher state of frenzy from the audience than say a tennis game, which too is an individual sport. If you can weave a great backstory as to why our hero landed up in that ring in the climax, then we are sold to the idea of rooting for him till the final bell rings. It is the same story which Southpaw puts together, a fighter whose personal life has gone astray, fighting for redemption. The story is a predictable one, but the actors on the big screen make it worth a watch, and by the time Jake Gyllenhaal steps into that ring during the finale, you bet there is nothing you want more than to see him fight hard and win.
Southpaw begins with Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the midst of a boxing match where he is taking the punches from his opponent, but that gets him to fight harder and win the bout. Hope is the undefeated World Light Heavyweight champion, living a rich lifestyle, after having had to come up in life the hard way. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) has always been beside him, but now she has started to get worried about the way he fights, and wants him to take a break. But at a charity event, when an upcoming boxer taunts Billy Hope, he loses his cool and gets into a scuffle which leads to a tragedy that will shatter the life he knew. As Hope’s life crumbles around him, and he loses custody of his daughter, he turns to a gym owner / trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker) to get him back on his feet. A battle to redeem himself has just begun.
Southpaw is the first script written for a movie by Kurt Sutter, famous for creating the TV series Sons of Anarchy. The tale goes that the movie was written for the rapper Eminem who had even agreed to it, before deciding to focus on his music career. Eventually it landed on the doorstep of Jake Gyllenhaal (thankfully). The story of Southpaw ain’t too innovative, and comparisons with Rocky III can be easily drawn. Just like the latter, Southpaw begins with Billy Hope at the peak of his career, a bit smug, someone who feels untouchable. But after having hit a low, Hope has to discover himself once again, and just like Rocky, has to go back to his roots, to something simpler and more effective. The problem with the story for Southpaw is that, apart from its predictability, about half of it has to do with the downward spiral of Hope which has been revealed already in the promos. Till the one-hour mark, we are still witnessing Hope’s daughter being taken by Child Protective Services, something shown in the promos, and even part of the movie’s synopsis. It is good to elongate some sections to build the characters of the movie, but if the plot’s synopsis holds half of the movie, then somewhere the marketing of the film has gone wrong. This is the bit where the studio needs to be more careful about what it wants to throw to the audience beforehand; some are highly secretive, some reveal way too many plot details, and the latter has been the problem with Southpaw.
Barring a bit of frustration with the first half of the movie, the second half really comes to life. Once the ‘redemption’ part of the story begins, director Antoine Fuqua has a greater hold on the pacing of the movie and how he wants his character’s personality to change. Fuqua is coming on the back of a hit last year with The Equalizer, and he brings that gritty tough tone in Southpaw as well. Along with it, the emotional drama elements have been handled quite brilliantly which takes this movie away from being only a boxing flick. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, with the intensity of the matches good enough to get the audience involved. The music by late James Horner (who tragically died just a few weeks before the movie’s release) changes its course well between the family drama and the boxing fights, allowing us to appreciate both elements of the movie, though it could have had a stronger beat during the matches.
The quality of Southpaw goes up a notch though solely on account of Jake Gyllenhaal. The average predictable story becomes a man’s emotional tale, all because of the transformation that Gyllenhaal allows his character to go through. Many people have raved about his physical transformation from his previous movie Nightcrawler, but it is the change in his personality during the course of Southpaw itself which is applause worthy. From someone who fought hard in the ring but let others take care of him outside, he grows into a more responsible adult who now cares about the people around him. There are these little things which he does with his character, like the display of anger which gradually subsides, like the walking style which becomes a bit more humble, like the way he looks at others where we can see compassion to grow. It is an amazing performance delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal, and put that alongside what he did in Nightcrawler, and we have a serious Oscar contender in a few years’ time.
Lending support is Forest Whitaker as Hope’s trainer during the latter half of the movie. This is one of the memorable Whitaker performances that had become so scarce. Those bumbling roles that he had to take up in the past few years, such as in Taken 3 and The Last Stand, did disservice to his ability as an actor. Here, in Southpaw, we see what he can really do. He can talk with his eyes, he can be gentle and strong at the same time, he can be funny too, and he can make you shed a tear; Whitaker is close to his best here. Rachel McAdams brightens up the screen in the initial parts, as the worried wife who is also the anchor of Billy Hope’s life. We have seen McAdams in too many romantic / comedy films, and more serious roles like these are always welcome. Rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson puts in a decent shift as Hope’s manager, though the character itself is quite cliched. A quick word on young Oona Laurence who plays Hope’s daughter; she is terrific as the angry, scared and worried little girl, and some scenes involving her will hit you straight at the heart. It is always great to see the young ones provide such mature performances, which could actually be a lesson for some other veteran actors.
Southpaw delivers on the boxing fights, but this movie has a lot of emotional appeal too. It is driven by its actors, each one of them committed to their end of the bargain, and no one more than Jake Gyllenhaal. Director Antoine Fuqua has asked a lot out of him, and Gyllenhaal has delivered. He has a lot of movies lined-up, each one looking different than the other, which could only be good for us. Keep up the good work, Gyllenhaal!