Movie review: Family first, boxing second in ‘Southpaw’
– Most of the time the story and plot aren’t a mystery in sports movies. You usually have an underdog, or a champion brought low. They have to find themselves and their sense of purpose, then they can prevail at the end.
It’s a formula, and there’s comfort in that. It’s true of all sports movies — whether it be baseball, football, basketball or boxing. We don’t go into the movies hoping to be surprised, but rather inspired. Sometimes, on rare occasions, both can happen. But most of the time, what matters in sports movies is the characters, their arc and whether it draws out your passion.
“Southpaw” fits that description perfectly. It’s a boxing movie, and there’s not much about the plot that’s shocking or unexpected. It follows the beats you’d figure, and even gives its characters names like Billy Hope that are meant to convey more than a moniker. But it’s the characters, the performances and the circumstances that do the heavy lifting and, for me, that all worked.
In the film, Billy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a champion boxer with an undefeated record. He came from the foster system, but he transcended that system, mainly thanks to his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). He lives to provide a better life for Maureen and his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence).
Billy’s career is flourishing, and his manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), is trying to push him to bigger and more lucrative deals. But Maureen thinks Billy is taking too much of a beating, and she wants him to think beyond the ring.
When a potential rival (Miguel Gomez) causes beef at an event, Maureen pays the price. Billy is left shattered and directionless, having lost the will to fight and the focus needed to watch the bottom line and care for Leila. When he loses everything — including seeing Leila put in the same system he fought to escape — Billy finds the motivation to get his act together.
He turns to trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who gives him a job and a new way to think about competing. With the help of Tick, Billy is able to focus and get his priorities straight as he tries to put his life back together.
Director Antoine Fuqua has delivered some powerful and emotional films in his career, and he does it again with “Southpaw.” Working off a script from Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), Fuqua finds the beating heart in the film, which helps it resonate with the audience. That’s key in these type of films, which tend to run on a very familiar pattern.
The film is betrayed a bit by the marketing. What happens to Maureen isn’t shocking, but the fact the scene is depicted in the trailer betrays some of the emotional impact on the screen. Despite that, the performances help to make it emotionally resonant, and the way the characters are built and portrayed helps the film to draw you in despite having nearly every beat telegraphed in the marketing.
Some have suggested this is the type of film that should have been awards bait. It hasn’t scored big with all critics, and it didn’t blow anyone away at the box office. But I would contend it still has some of the most powerful performances of the year. McAdams, though in only the early part of the film, does a great job of establishing her character and her relationship with Billy. You feel her loss in the film, which is a credit to the work she does in establishing Maureen.
In addition, Whitaker and Laurence do a good job of bringing their characters to life. Both, in their own ways, challenge Billy to step up and be a better man and better father.
But the real heavy lifting in the film is done by Gyllenhaal. He is an actor who sinks into every role he takes and really brings the character to life — warts and all. His work as Billy Hope is no different. He gets the physical look of the part right, but more importantly he brings the different dimensions of personality. His desire and angst is real, and it’s palpable. As ferocious as he is in the ring, Gyllenhaal brings an even greater ferocity and intensity to the scenes where he is struggling to pull himself together and be the man his daughter needs him to be. You can’t help but root for him.
Some have suggested Gyllenhaal’s performance is better than the movie around him. Perhaps that’s true. Either way, you ache for Billy Hope to win — not just in the ring but in life. That’s the result of a beautifully acted and beautifully told story.
“Southpaw” isn’t a perfect film, and it isn’t a surprising film, but it’s a powerfully told story. I was moved in a way I didn’t expect, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a film.
“Southpaw” has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for R for language throughout, and some violence. Enter with caution.
Four stars out of four.