Movie review: ‘Southpaw’ isn’t a knockout, but it’s worth a watch
There’s going to be a fight, a carefully regulated one in Madison Square Garden, in front of a crowd of thousands, with the reigning light-heavyweight champ, holding a record of 42-0, taking on yet another hopeful challenger. But first, the Athletic Commission visits the champ’s dressing room to oversee the ritual taping of the hands, the wife comes in to kiss him good luck, and then it’s on. The camera is right in there. The fighters bob and weave, the fists fly, there are jabs and hooks and uppercuts (the champ has a particularly effective left one, hence the film’s title, “Southpaw”). The challenger works a little harder, but the champ digs in and takes it, getting pummeled and bloody, but smiling at and sassing his opponent. Then it’s over, with the champ’s record now at 43-0.
But the story really starts after the fight, back in the dressing room, where the winner, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), is exhausted, and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is worried, obviously having seen this scene too many times. And wouldn’t you know it, before there’s time to recover, the young boxing upstart Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) approaches the champ, yelling, “Why won’t you give ME a shot!”
It’s a scene boxing movie fans have probably seen too many times, but director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), and writer Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), attempt to take this boxing movie to new places. They get a major assist from Gyllenhaal, who has whipped his body into convincingly chiseled but battered shape, and gives it his all as an actor both in and out of the ring.
“Southpaw” actually spends quite a bit more time out of the ring than most entries in the genre. Billy and Maureen’s life at home is as important to the story as what he does for a living, and it’s there that the film gets another boost from newcomer Oona Laurence as their happy 10-year-old daughter Leila, who adores her parents, and who, except for regularly seeing the banged-up face of Dad and noticing that he’s prone to limping, has been pretty much shielded from the brutal side of the sport.
We like these people. We want things to go well for them. But that’s just not the way of the boxing movie. There’s usually an impending sense of doom, then something goes horribly wrong, then the boxer has to slowly, methodically get out of a rut and either triumph or go in the other direction. Tragedy strikes in “Southpaw.” It happens early and accidentally and violently, and it sends a crippling ripple through the story that makes things look like they’ll be impossible for some of its characters to recover from.
Too bad, this is where the filmmakers decide to play it more safe than risky, to stick closer to the familiar beats of boxing films that have come before it than to strike out into new territory. This is a very well told and well acted film, but there’s no surprise in finding out that Billy takes a fall from grace, and must start over at the bottom. Really the bottom, sweeping the floors of a small-time boxing gym that’s run by world-weary but wily old Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a man who has and knows how to use some excellent training tricks, but also harbors some ghosts of his own.
He gives the film a great character, but it’s up to Gyllenhaal, as it should be, to carry it. He does so without a hitch, portraying Billy as someone who goes from being beaten up to beaten down, then striving, slowly and painfully, to make things right.
There’s an inevitable return to the ring where, just as in the early moments of the film, a terrifically choreographed and photographed fight takes place. And though in the last act there are false moments on the way to the healing of emotional wounds, all of the pieces end up fitting together nicely. This is good stuff. It’s just not a standout among boxing movies.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Kurt Sutter; directed by Antoine Fuqua
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Miguel Gomez, Oona Laurence