(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua
The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.
But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.
But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).
Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.
And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.
After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.
Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.
The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.
There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.
REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out