“You can’t control shit.”
Between 1976 and 1980, the boxing picture was pretty much perfected with Rocky and Raging Bull. The former telling the quintessential underdog story, while the latter was all about the rise and fall of a tragic figure who was his own worst enemy. There’s a reason why every single boxing movie of the last 35 years has been compared to those two. They set a bar that hasn’t been reached since. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of movies form trying. The latest being Southpaw.
The current Light Heavyweight champion of the world, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) successfully defends his title for the fourth time. His victorious press conference is crashed by rival fighter, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who thinks he should be the next to get a crack at the title. When Hope starts to have problems with his eye, his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) convinces him to retire a champ, and live the quiet life her and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence).
Later, at a charity event, Escobar once again crashes the party. This time, a scuffle between the two boxers turns into a brawl as their collective entourages also get involved. When it’s all over and the dust has settled, Maureen is dying from a stray bullet fired by Escobar’s brother, Hector (Danny Henriquez). Now, it’s time for Hope to descend into world of drugs, booze, depression and revenge fantasies. A descent that doesn’t stop until his daughter is taken away by the state and he’s broke. Then, it’s time to get back to basics, rebuilding everything from scratch, starting by taking a job at the bottom of the food chain of a rundown old gym, run by old school by trainer, Tick Williams (Forest Whitaker).
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the guy behind movies like Training Day and The Equalizer, subtlety wasn’t something I was expecting from Southpaw. Written by Kurt Sutter, the guy behind the TV show Sons of Anarchy, subtlety really wasn’t something I was expecting from Southpaw. And the heavy handed approaches of these combined to make something pretty overbearing and in your face.
Gyllenhaal plays the quiet scenes perfectly, but when it’s time to get in the ring, he’s swept away in the bombast and extreme instincts of his writer and director, turning Billy Hope into bloodied and bruised animal. And, for the most part, he kind of makes it work. Southpaw isn’t a great movie, but Gyllenhaal is the only thing that keeps it from being a terrible movie (McAdams nails it as well, but her limited screen time means there’s only so much she can do). If Fuqua and Sutter had a lesser actor in the lead role, Southpaw would have quickly collapsed under the weight of its many clichés and predictable plot points and character beats. Instead, we at least get a great performance amidst the many clichés and predictable plot points and character beats.