Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whittaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Lawrence, 50 Cent, Skylar Brooks, Naomie Harris
Written by: Kurt Sutter
Running Time: 124 mins
Release date: 24th July 2015
The last time we saw Jake Gyllenhaal (if you don’t include the excruciating Accidental Love, which was made a few years ago) was as the morally repugnant, stick-thin Leo in the excellent Nightcrawler. Now he has completely changed again to a muscle-bound light heavyweight brawler in this boxing drama from Antoine Fuqua. Only this time, the transformation isn’t for quite a worthy film.
Billy Hope has it all. Undisputed light heavyweight champion. Living in a mansion with his adoring wife, Maureen and his daughter who he dotes on, Leila. Then tragedy strikes, sending Billy off the rails. He is suspended from boxing for a year, loses his home and his daughter is taken away from him. Determined to get his life back, he takes a job at Tick Wills gym, where he starts to learn how to box again.
This starts with lots of potential. Usually in boxing movies, we see the underdog having to climb his way to the top. Here we have Billy, already at the top, dishing out gold watches to his crew for helping him win, driving the flash cars and having a wardrobe just devoted to belts! With the twist to the tale in the middle (if you have seen the trailer, you will know what it is but I won’t spoil it here). this could have been a story of a man returning to his ghetto roots, struggling to put his life back together again. This does happen but then when you think it could get even more melodramatic, he goes into boxing cliché world.
Director Fuqua does a fine job, playing out the fight scenes as if we were seeing them from the lens of a TV pay-per-view, with commentary, while he controls the drama just enough that it doesn’t get too morkish and over sentimental. In fact, in places, you do find yourself moved by the events. It then just seems that he and script writer Kurt Sutter run out of ideas and so have to rely on what has been in Rocky. We get the training montage with a rousing soundtrack, supplied by Eminem. We get the underdog taking on the champ. We get the surprise switch of boxing styles. Every cliché going gets ticked off and so instead of a touching story of a father’s determination to change for the sake of his child, we get just another boxing movie.
There is also a strange brushing-off of subplots. Something happens to a minor character at the gym and the whole thing just seems to be done in such a matter-of-fact way. It’s feels somewhat important, then it’s forgotten almost instantly. This happens quite a few times where subplot are not resolved, as if they only exist as padding. Even some of the characters seem only to be there as filler, mainly Naomie Harris’s child protection officer, She is completely wasted here and when you think her character is going to play an important part, she too is brushed off.
Thankfully the performances are rather good, even though the script doesn’t help them. Forest Whittaker, as Tock Wills, is a modern-day Mickey, full of wise words and anecdotes that guild the lost fighter, although his lower vocal tones seem to lose some of the words and they turn into a mumble. Rachel McAdams, as Billy wife, does a good job with what little screen time she has, while Gyllenhaal, looking like he could take on any fighter for 15 rounds, gives us another flawed character, yet sadly like Whittaker, most of his dialogue is reduced to mumbling.
The real star of the piece is Oona Lawrence as Leila. This is a young girl who has the star potential of Chloe Grace Mortez or Abigail Breslin, or even Jodie Foster. She is wise before her years, out-acting even Gyllenhaal in their scenes, which make up the cornerstone of the film. As the heartbroken Leila, she brings a naturalness to the role along with a real sense of maturity. It’s a terrific performance from a complete newcomer.
Southpaw had a lot in its corner that it decided to just throw away in favour of treading very old ground. If you come out feeling you’ve seen it all before, you probably have, which is a shame, as this had some fine ideas at the beginning. A pity.