Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Rachel McAdams, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, and some violence)
Running Time: 2:03
Release Date: 7/24/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 23, 2015
The first-act salvo of complications, obstacles, and defeats is perhaps too weighty a burden for Southpaw to shoulder. On a fundamental level, this is an underdog sports story, so there's a certain logic to the fact that the main character must become an underdog. Since he starts the movie at the peak of his career, something must give for him to achieve underdog status. Within the course of a matter of minutes of screen time, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a loaded name if ever there was one—loses his career, his reputation, his money, and his entire family. There's upping the dramatic stakes, and then there's this.
This isn't to suggest that the movie's dramatic setup is wrong at face value. It's simply too much for this particular story. The reason for that is because the screenplay by Kurt Sutter isn't especially interested in dealing with the multitude of problems that Billy faces in any significant way. They occur so that he can fulfill his generic destiny of rising above them. The answer to all of his problems—both on a dramatic level and in a much deeper way for the character—is boxing. Boxing solves everything here. When we're talking about the various emotional ramifications and psychological issues with which Billy must contend, boxing seems a pretty, almost absurdly trivial thing, indeed.
At the movie's start, Billy is the undefeated champion of his weight class. He has already gone through an underdog story in his life, having been raised in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage. There, he met a girl who would later become his beautiful, bluntly honest, and tough-as-nails wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). They have a clever, loving daughter named Leila (Oona Laurence). The family is set financially, thanks to Billy's fame, success, and pay-per-view cable contracts set up by his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent).
Billy, though, is an angry man. We see it in an opening boxing match in which he seems unable to fight until he takes enough physical punishment from his opponent. Once he does, something goes off inside him, and he becomes a brutal brawler—his mouth agape in a primal howl of rage. Maureen is worried he'll become punch-drunk in a matter of years if he keeps up his fighting style. Billy is usually able to separate the anger in the ring from his personal life, but then Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), an up-and-comer who wants a shot at the title, takes his taunting a little too far at a charity event.
At this point, the question is how much to reveal about what unfolds. The temptation is to reveal the incident that sets off Billy's downfall, given how cheaply and cynically manipulative it is, but the same rationale almost demands that it be experienced without forewarning, just so one can feel the exploitative impact firsthand. Let's just say that someone suddenly disappears from the story. Billy is unable to cope with the fallout, which leads to a series of additional melodramatic turns.
The story quickly reaches a fever pitch that is untenable, even in the relatively brief timespan of Billy's collapse. Thankfully, Sutter's screenplay calms down significantly in the aftermath. If it works too hard to get Billy to rock bottom, the movie does display considerable restraint in its following passages.
Billy starts training with Titus "Tick" Wills (Forest Whitaker), a no-nonsense gym owner who left the world of professional boxing (after a fight rigged in Billy's favor, no less) to help at-risk youth. Tick's training regimen involves platitudes about character as much as it does learning to block, dodge, weave, and, occasionally, throw a punch.
It's a thankless role, really, especially when the sage mentor becomes the man whose instructions drive an inevitable training montage before an equally inevitable final match. Whitaker, though, fulfills the obligatory part with sincerity and humor. A similar sentiment can be directed toward Naomie Harris, who plays a social worker who is assigned to handle the case of Billy's daughter. Harris plays the social worker with unwavering compassion toward the father and, especially, the daughter. Like Whitaker's part, she also spends the finale reduced to a cheerleader, although it's a much less convincing transition on her end.
For a while, in fact, the movie hits an unexpected stride with some fairly obvious material. Billy faces his anger, learns to respect his daughter's pain and anger, and just happens to become a better, more focused boxer in the process. The boxing is secondary for a stretch of the movie—a reflection of his improvement as a person, instead of an end goal. It's refreshing, especially after enduring the heavy-handed machinations that get the character in a position in which he needs to improve himself.
The respite doesn't last, though, and the movie finds itself rushing to the big boxing bout. All of the lessons he has learned no longer matter, since his worth and recovery hinge upon whether or not he will win (The characters insist the match isn't about revenge or redemption, but the movie wouldn't invest so much in it if that were the case). Southpaw features the components of a fine, character-driven movie, but they're sandwiched between an unpalatable first act and a routine final one.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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