Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw casts Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of champion boxer Billy Hope as he goes on a journey to prove himself again after suffering a catastrophic loss.
The underdog boxing movie is nothing new and arguably done best by Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise so it takes something special to really stand out from the crowd. This film attempts this by putting the boxing aspect of the story firmly in the background and focusing on Hope’s character journey above everything else.
Billy Hope is a likeable enough character and is well developed throughout. He clearly has a temper but is entirely devoted to his family and loyal to his friends who he treats with lavish gifts. He’s not the most intelligent or stable of guys but his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) helps run his business interests as well as his life. It’s a romantic partnership that works perfectly and the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and McAdams never stops being believable.
Gyllenhaal is great in the lead role and imbues Hope with lots of personality. It’s easy to root for him as his life quickly spirals out of control following a personal tragedy. His journey is clear and he has a lot of flaws to overcome before he gets there. There’s a strong sense of determination coupled with a lack of self control to the performance and some of that is played really powerfully. Not to mention the fact that he has managed to get himself in astounding shape for the role. There’s never any doubt over how dangerous he is in the ring.
The strongest moments in the film come when he has lost everything and has to build himself up from scratch. Hope’s relationship with melancholic trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) is always interesting. Wills sees a man in dire need of a fresh start and has some personal issues to work through himself. He sees a man at rock bottom and gives him the help he needs to crawl his way back from it. Whitaker is incredible in this role despite the typical nature of his character. The mentor role is almost mandatory for films like this but here it feels natural and makes sense within the framework of the narrative.
Hope’s training becomes a metaphor for his own self improvement. The more he learns from Wills and the changes that brings to his fighting style are mirrored in his outlook on life and the steps he takes towards regaining the trust and custody of his daughter.
Oona Laurence as Hope’s daughter Leila is the real surprise here. She gives a constantly genuine performance and has consistently believable father/daughter chemistry with Gyllenhaal. The father/daughter relationship becomes the emotional anchor for the narrative and they go through a bit of a rollercoaster throughout. She starts off loving him and then transitions to hatred when she feels abandoned to him before finally growing to want him back in her life again. Leila basically becomes the prize that Billy needs to win by the end of the film. Her character is written as being more than a little precocious but on the whole it works because her performance is so genuine.
One thing the film slouches on is the boxing elements. When Hope fights it is exciting and dynamic with some creative POV shots really bringing the viewer into the action but it feels like something of an afterthought. His apparently rivalry with Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) lingers so far in the background that it’s nearly forgotten about by the time it rears its head again. The animosity between these two characters is never truly felt which makes little sense given the personal stakes involved. There isn’t enough time spent building up this final confrontation so it ends up feeling a little underwhelming by the end.
Despite some shortcomings in the boxing elements this film is definitely worth watching. Gyllenhaal provides a stellar emotional and physical performance with a talented cast backing him up. There are enough powerful moments to hold the interest of the viewer throughout.
An entertaining and powerful film with a stellar performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as well as the rest of the cast.
Gyllenhaal provides an excellent physical and emotional performance as Billy Hope. He is always engaging and easy to root for with clear goals in his life and career. He’s sympathetic when he loses everything and there’s a sense of excitement when he starts to bring it all back.
His relationship with his wife Maureen plays really well on screen with great chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams who both bring across a passionate and functional relationship. She serves as the brains of the operation and helps keep his life together.
Forest Whitaker takes on the mentor role but does so believably with a melancholic yet believable performance. There’s a familiarity between them and their training becomes a metaphor for Hope’s own self improvement as he works to win the trust and custody of his daughter.
Oona Laurence is great as Hope’s daughter Leila despite being very precocious throughout. It works due to her strong performance and the natural father/daughter chemistry between her and Gyllenhaal. The emotional journey is a believable one as they run the gamut of acceptance problems.
The film slouches on the boxing front by framing it firmly in the background pretty much right away. There’s a perceived rivarly between hope and another boxer named Escobar but it never feels strong enough. When the film reaches the climatic fight it feels almost tacked on and lacks any of the emotional heft that it should.
Despite the flaws this film is definitely worth checking out if only for Gyllenhaal’s performance. He leads a talented cast through a believable journey of self improvement and the result never bores the audience.