Film Review: “Southpaw,” directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2015
There’s nothing more conventional than a boxing movie. From “Rocky” to “The Fighter,” we know what we’re going to get: a good fight. “Southpaw” delivers exactly that. It’s tough and comforting at the same time.
The movie opens with Billy “the Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a brutal bout to defend his light heavyweight championship title. He wins after 10 grueling rounds, badly battered. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), wants him to take a long break and enjoy the life he has built for their family. They live in a mansion with their 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), surrounded most of the time by his entourage.
His manager (50 Cent) coaxes him to sign a $30 million deal and keep on fighting, but Maureen opposes the plan and warns him that once his bubble of success bursts, everyone around him will scatter like cockroaches and only she and Leila will be left to pick up the pieces.
Call it a wife’s intuition, but Billy’s bubble breaks in a spectacular way after a brawl that ends in a tragedy. He loses his title, home, and family. His manager and hangers-on flee faster than cockroaches. He has to fight for the custody of his daughter.
As expected from a boxing movie, “Southpaw” builds up to Billy’s climactic return to the ring. Billy must jump multiple hurdles along the way with the help of a no-nonsense trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). For all of Billy’s physical prowess, he doesn’t know how to box defensively. He’s so tough he just takes the punches. His new trainer teaches him how to fight smart. Billy learns the one fighting style that helps him win his next match and regain his place in boxing hierarchy.
Known for his blistering film, “Training Day,” Antoine Fuqua’s fight sequences are gritty. But in adhering to the boxing trope, he veers toward the melodrama of “Rocky” and the clichés of “The Champ,” more than the earnestness and humor of “The Fighter.”
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Acting Matures
A ripped and menacing Gyllenhaal, all grown up, is the best thing about this movie. You won’t find the heartthrob from the terrible “Prince of Persia” (2010) or the weird kid from the strange “Donnie Darko” (2001). In “Southpaw,” Gyllenhaal manages to be savage inside the ring and heart-breaking outside of it. His acting “growth spurt” is evident in his other recent films—“Nightcrawler” (2014) and “End of Watch” (2012). His transformation in this film is certainly worth watching.
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