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Movie Review: #Southpaw

The violent and devious world of boxing is revealed in Jake Gyllenhaal's Southpaw.

Review by Matt Cummings

If you were one of the millions of people who forked over $100 in hopes of watching that 'fight of the century' between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, you were probably disappointed at the men's dance that occurred in its place. It's sad to admit that American professional boxing is perhaps in its darkest hour, ruined by promoters who laugh all the way to their huge payouts, and supported with questionable behavior by boxers that borders on the practiced routines of the WWE. At least this summer gives us the very good Southpaw, although it's a bit long and entirely predictable.

Boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has fought his way to the top of his profession, taunting his opponents while they deliver vicious blows in a vain attempt to defeat him. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) are worried that the shots leveled at Billy will soon leave him unable to fight or even enjoy the spoils of his efforts. But when a tragedy sees Maureen die in Billy's arms, the fighter's world begins to fall apart, aided by his seedy promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) who uses her death to cajole him into another contract. Faced with the loss of his fortune and daughter to CPS, Billy must revive his career to prove his worthiness as a father. But he'll need help in the form of old-school trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), while CPS Agent Rivera (Naomie Harris) watches Billy descend once again into the violence that is professional boxing.

Director Antoine Fuqua hit paydirt with 2014's The Equalizer, proving that nice guy Robert McCall did have his demons to shed. In Southpaw, he puts Gyllenhaal through the physical and mental ringer, turning him in a muscle-bound machine with a weight as big as McCall's. Gyllenhaal continues to make great films - although no one at MPAS seems to notice - bringing life to his characters regardless of the challenges. Here, he inhabits the punch drunk Billy with both a sense of gladiatorial ferocity and weariness, as if both are tearing him away from himself. The only thing keeping him from descending permanently into chaos is Leila, played convincingly by Laurence. Perhaps the most difficult of the child roles we've seen this year, Leila forces Billy to atone for her mother's death in a very simple way: prove your worthiness to me. That results in several very good scenes between them, including an exchange in the orphanage that will leave your heart broken.

And that's part of the problem with Southpaw: this is mostly about characters seeking slow-burn redemption without the heart that made Rocky such an instant classic. That's not the case with Southpaw, suffering from unnecessary storylines and a second act that takes awhile to re-establish itself after Maureen's death. The film does reflect the idea in boxing of getting up from every difficulty to fight again, sending us to the mat several times with its raw power. Whitaker helps us get back up with a worthy performance, although it's ultimately Gyllenhaal who keeps the bull moving. McAdams turns in a short but effective appearance, proving that her current run on True Detective is not a fluke. She's the rock in Billy's life, and when that's taken away we feel the loss as well. 50 Cent is nothing but a slimy promoter here and we learn nothing about his motivations short of greed, but he portrays it well enough for us to thoroughly dislike him.

This was one of Composer James Horner's last scores, and his haunting mood is a refreshing surprise from the sort of rah-rah beats that lesser genre films have used. Fuqua and long-time collaborator Cinematographer Mauro Fiore hides Gyllenhaal in a mix of shadows and rear lighting, as if Billy has been covered by the fog of death. Writer Kurt Sutter does his best to paint professional boxing as perhaps it really is: a violent sport supported by greedy promoters and fighters who don't understand the long-term damage they're doing to themselves. Unfortunately, that's the extent of the surprises, but it seems the trio is working the redemption angle more than anything else. We know how it's going to end, but the performances and production value are strong enough for us to forgive them.

While not guaranteed to be a crossover hit, male demographics should keep Southpaw punching; bolstered by strong performances across the board, it's also the kind of redemption story that feels like we've seen it before. But go see it anyways: you'll find yourself at once shocked at the broken system that reflects professional boxing and the film's ability to regain your confidence.

Southpaw is rated R for language throughout and some violence and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


Thomas Watson said…
With my expectations slightly raised due to other reviews and previews I saw I left disappointed. Not a bad film mind you just less than what I expected.
Mariz Denver said…
I would strongly recommend that you do see this movie as the performance's are well worth the ticket price. As I was told long ago, the key to success is either improving upon an existing product, or making a totally new one. Well, this is not a new story, but it is a vast improvement over a lot of the previous boxing riches to rags and back to riches stories. Trust me, you don't want to miss this one!

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