‘Southpaw’ is melodramatic but thoroughly engaging
PHOTO BY ESCAPE ARTISTS AND FUQUA FILMS
Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre in SLO, Stadium 10 in AG
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $8.50
What's it worth?: $8.50
Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) directs Jake Gyllenhaal as boxer Billy Hope, whose life falls apart after losing his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), to a tragic accident and his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), is taken by Child Protective Services. He turns to trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to help turn around his life. Written by Kurt Sutter (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy), the film also stars 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, and Naomie Harris. (123 min.)
Glen A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes’ 58 percent critics rating compared to the 83 percent audience rating tells you all you need to know about the cynicism of many professional film critics. Sure, you can dismiss Southpaw as a cliché-ridden melodrama, but I was thoroughly engaged in this story about an orphan who’d “grown up in the system” to become a champion boxer. When we meet Billy Hope, he’s defending his title, and it’s clear he’s a brawler, the sort of fighter whose anger propels him to victory. This doesn’t make his doting wife, Maureen, very happy, telling him he’ll be punch drunk in two years if doesn’t start protecting himself. That’s tough advice for a fighter who needs a beating to unleash his inner animal, but he takes it, refusing to sign a $30 million three-fight contract and instead take a break from fighting. Of course, his sleazy manager (rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) pressures him, and after Maureen dies and Billy realizes he’s hemorrhaging money, he agrees. His grief over Maureen’s loss, however, makes him unfit to fight. He does something stupid that gets him banned from boxing, and soon he’s lost it all: his fancy home, cars, and most importantly his daughter, Leila, to social services. What follows is a gripping tale of redemption.
Anna I’ve really enjoyed Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, especially with his last few performances in movies such as Nightcrawler and Enemy. He’s great at transforming himself into whatever character he is portraying, and Billy Hope is no exception. From the opening fight we see Billy’s crazed but focused anger fueling his fists in bloody and brutal showdowns. His wife is his inspiration as well as his rock, trying to keep him grounded and safe as much as possible. He’s got an adorable little girl, a lavish lifestyle, and the love of his life on his arm. Life in paradise can only last so long though, and we watch as Billy’s life tumbles into tragedy. Without Maureen, he loses his will to live and quickly descends into a life of violence, denial, and masking his pain with booze. He also loses his drive to fight, and the torturous fight following his wife’s death is painful to watch. While Billy isn’t a brilliant man, he is fiercely loyal to those he loves, and that’s what drives him to keep living. He understands he’s got a lot of work to do to win Leila back, both in the court system and in her heart. Call it cliché if you like, but I think this comeback story has a lot of heart, and the performances by all involved made for a touching and endearing story.
Glen Gyllenhaal’s Billy is inarticulate, insecure, and emotionally volatile, and Gyllenhaal disappears into this role. Just as he lost a lot of weight and became gaunt in Nightcrawler, here he’s bulked up and is ripped in Southpaw. He doesn’t look like he’s got an ounce of body fat. He’s clearly a talented and dedicated actor, and his skills are well matched by Whitaker’s Tick Willis, whose sage advice and training fosters Billy’s comeback. Instead of all brawn and no brain in the ring, Tick teaches Billy finesse and strategy. The back and forth between these two characters as well as Billy and his daughter are compelling, and Oona Laurence is fantastic as Leila, who’s grieving both the literal loss of her mother as well as the emotional loss of her father, whose reckless behavior lands her in social services. Yes, it’s melodramatic, but the performances transcend the clichés. Finally, kudos to Fuqua, whose directorial oeuvre has included a lot of middling action films (The Replacement Killers, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Olympus Has Fallen). One element that makes this film superior is the well-articulated fight scenes. You can almost feel the body blows in your seat. If you’re a cynic, by all means, stay home, but if you love a good comeback story, bring some tissues. You’re going to need them.
Anna The fight scenes in this movie are fantastic, building to the final fight that’s a brutal match between Billy and a fighter who was involved in his wife’s death. Fuqua did a great job of keeping the fight scenes interesting by starting off the film using wider shots, and drawing them in tighter and tighter as the film progressed, until we actually are watching the fight from Billy and his competitor’s viewpoint. They’re certainly bloody and at times painful to watch, and if violence on the big screen isn’t your thing, this movie is not for you. Gyllenhaal’s transformation is amazing, especially after seeing him as scrawny Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler. He spent eight months training with Terry Claybon, starting off with no boxing experience at all. He said his concern was to “look like a boxer” on screen, and he certainly pulled it off. Even if it’s over the top, I was invested in the drama from start to finish. Billy has a few tattoos. The first that we see across his back says “Fear no man,” speaking to his raw animal nature in the ring. But the ones across his arms, one saying “Fighter” and the other “Father,” show where his true heart lies, both with his love of boxing and his love for his daughter, who he will do anything to be with again. I think Southpaw is a touching comeback story with enough heart to overcome the cliché.
Sun Screen is written by New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.