I don’t think boxing films will ever get boring, and Southpaw joins the rankings as a top class piece of boxing entertainment. Gyllenhaal returns to the screen for the first time since Nightcrawler and brings to life an aggressive, hot headed yet utterly supportable athlete, Billy Hope, and adds a little more testimony to why he is, at the moment, the best in the business.
Southpaw does not dwell on showcasing heavy hits or physical prowess for the most part of the film, but rather illuminates an altogether moving story about the relationship between a father and his daughter, after being ravaged by the shocking death of their wife/mother. Rachel McAdams delivers duly as Maureen, Billy’s wife, and Forest Whitaker is outstanding as Billy’s trainer, but it is Oona Laurence, who plays the daughter, Leila Hope, that impresses the most with a startlingly good performance, one that makes you wonder how someone so young can muster such remarkable acting ability.
Billy Hope is a world star boxer basking in his success and enjoying the trappings of wealth. But after the tragic death of his wife, both his career and his personal life hit rock bottom; he loses both custody of his daughter and his good reputation. But after meeting good-guy Titus (Whitaker), a retired fighter, trainer and teacher at an under privileged gym, he is motivated to get his career back on track and as a result, regain care for his daughter.
Emotionally, Southpaw is profoundly affecting with a cinematic prowess that creates what are some particularly heart thumping fight scenes. The audience is thrust right into the action with effective point of view visuals and each punch thrown can nearly be felt by those watching. The significant fight at the denouement is teeth grindingly intense and displays boxing as a truly thrilling sport.
Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation in preparation for his role as Billy Hope highlights his commitment to the characters he tackles. He is undoubtedly in great shape, a feature which on its own would be rather one dimensional, but he also puts on a masterful performance and captivates the audience from the very beginning. In terms of drama, the family plot is gripping and Gyllenhaal had me on the edge of my seat in his desperate, wholehearted pursuit of custody of his only child. Gyllenhaal once again raises the bar and pushes the limit of what is expected of an actor.
With Antoine Fuqua, who directed Training Day, and whose screenwriters were previously involved in Sons of Anarchy, it is surprising that Southpaw is a quality movie. Although undeniably predictable, this film is heart-breaking and inspiring. It toys interestingly with the concept of religion, however in a very subtle way. None of the characters are openly expressive of faith, though the crucifix in Titus’ office and a scene where a boxing ring and match is organised inside a church suggests that perhaps writers are associating boxing with faith or maybe even boxing as a type of worship. An abstract notion, but possibly accurate.
It is ultimately Gyllenhaal that makes the film what it is, but Whitaker and Laurence add refreshing dimensions to the boxing drama. It holds your attention from start to finish; well structured and exciting to watch. Fuqua’s movie obtains the traditional layout of a boxing movie and, as a result, burdens itself with a noticeable predictability, but regardless, Southpaw is a great watch and maybe this time, Gyllenhaal will get the praise he more than deserves.