Southpaw (2015) Review: Fall, Box, Grow, Repeat
The sports movie is truly special. There is no other genre of cinema that has prospered despite having changed mostly nothing in the decades it’s been around. The plot points are predictable, the characters are paint by numbers, and you can even pinpoint specifically what scenes will be in each movie. Any other genre has to evolve beyond its tropes and cliches, but the sports movie seems to be the proverbial underdog of filmdom.
The one genre that with all the odds stacked against it, still manages to come out on top. The sports movie is also a bit like the gangster movie, sharing both critical acclaim and popular success. The snobbiest of film fans can break bread with the general audience member over how great ‘Rocky’ is.
Southpaw doesn’t break the mold but that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. This time around, the story is about Jake Gyllenhall’s Billy “The Great” Hope, heavyweight champion of the world, with a 43-0 record. The film actually starts in the middle of that 43rd bout and lets you know just what type of boxer he is. He’s violent, cocky and favours a knockout.
He also doesn’t shy from a beating or two, much to the chagrin of his wife Maureen played by mean girl, Rachael McAdams. Together, Billy and Maureen have a little girl and thus a reason to get out the ring for good. Unfortunately, you can take the boxer out the ring but you can’t take the ring out of the boxer. His temper gets the best of him when he’s taunted outside a charity event, and the ensuing scuffle leaves his wife Mo shot by a stray bullet.
What surprised me about the movie is how much time is spent showing that setup. Whereas most films these days would quickly reveal the characters motivations in favour of dealing with the main conflict, ‘Southpaw’ has a tendency to linger with it. You spend a sizable amount of time discovering the relationship between Billy and the people around him. This makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch, as his destructive personality takes a toll on those very people. His daughter, in particular, suffers the brunt of Billy’s inability to cope with his wife’s passing. Losing his wife makes him unable to find a reason to keep fighting and thus loses the one thing he knew how to do.
The scenes that immediately follow the film’s tragedy are wholly uncomfortable. Aided by the fact that the facial injuries Billy suffers in the opening fight remain there. These injuries serve as an indicator of the brisk period that Hope’s life falls apart. Before the scars on his face can even heal he loses everything from his Maserati & mansion to custody of his daughter. On a more thematic note, however, the scars serve as an outward representation of just how much pain Billy feels for his loss. The film has a large number of close-ups on Billy during these sequences to really bring the point home. It’s only when Billy makes some stride with his emotional development that his face starts to heal.
Of course, the development isn’t just shown by a few dabs of Neosporin, saying as much would be a disservice to the cast. Gyllenhaal carries the film and actually gives my favourite performance this year. Granted, it’s only July, but for about 120 minutes, I was given everything that could be said about this person and that was due to how excellently he was played.
Next to him, however, is the wickedly impressive Oona Laurence as Billy’s daughter Leila. All that stuff about her dealing with her mother’s death is not just quickly glossed over. Instead of seeing a few brief shots of her sitting by herself in the distance or just being distant to her father, Oona actually is given material to sell and sell she does. Billy and Leila join the ever-expanding list of father-daughter relationships that drive their narrative, just as Cooper and Murph from Interstellar.
All of this is not what you typically see in a boxing movie. ‘Southpaw’ uses its first hour or so to properly show a man on a journey to make some serious life changes for the sake of his daughter. When you apply that to the competitive world of sports and a volatile sportsman, you have the formula for a film that could’ve been an innovative character piece. One about a man who is defined by something but has to rebuild himself completely when he loses it. The third act of this movie betrays this message of rehabilitation by pushing its character right off the proverbial wagon. While I would’ve loved to see Billy end up finishing his journey coming out a new man; having him train to win a comeback fight only seems to contradict the character development that preceded it.
The performances across the board are good, Forest Whitaker is another standout. He plays the cliche owner of a broken down gym with the key technique to give Billy his return to greatness. On the flipside is a surprisingly decent 50 cent. He is the literal agent of Billy’s demise, ditching him once he becomes a useless asset. Rachael McAdams is great as the wife who wants him to quit before he can’t feed himself anymore, but that’s all the character you get from this movie. It being a character piece, there’s not much done for any character besides Billy. Everyone is just a carbon copy of character archetypes from other boxing films, albeit in a much grittier tone.
That being said, something I did like about this film was just how the dialogue was crafted. It wasn’t particularly clever, but that’s what made it stand out. Everyone in the movie sounds like someone you know. They repeat themselves a little too much and they mumble every now and then. This naturalistic style makes the movie feel…well natural. ‘Southpaw’ is at it’s best when it feels just like a guy who’s run into hard times and the dialogue does nothing but help that.
‘Southpaw’ could’ve been a great film. What it is, is an all right one. The good does technically outweigh the bad. The first two-thirds of the film genuinely does have a fantastic performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and a great partial character development. Not to mention the emphasis on showing rather than telling is a welcome tactic in film-making. However, while the final fight is an impressive one, it ultimately is a betrayal of the narrative you’re given and as such, I can’t say with confidence that I’ll be seeing this film a second time. I would be hard pressed to recommend it as a theatre outing as it’s not worth the price of admission unless you really are that big of a Gyllenhaal fan. As it stands the movie would be a decent film to catch on cable as you don’t find yourself wishing there was a way to get your money back.
Side note: As a film fan, it would be sacrilegious of me not to make note of the movie’s score by recently deceased composer James Horner. The score is a great one to have as one of his last works and it’s a definite example of his versatility. The man was able to bring as much meaning to something as literally epic as ‘Titanic’ as he was to this considerably smaller film.
Rating: Catch It On Cable