Are you ready for the fight of the century? In the red corner, we have the hugely talented Jake Gyllenhaal, and in the blue corner we have the most generic sports movie script imaginable. Which will prevail in the long, grim slog that is Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw?
The luxurious house, the fancy cars, the beautiful family; boxing champ Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Gyllenhaal) has it all. Undefeated in the ring, and universally envied outside of it, Billy’s domestic idyll is shattered when an altercation with nemesis Miguel Escoban (Miguel Gomez) ends in tragic circumstances. With the bills piling up and the media critiquing his every move, Billy embarks on a classic redemption tale to reclaim his title, and enact revenge on his rival.
If a wave of déjà vu is crashing over you right now, you’re not alone; Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw certainly doesn’t reject or push against well-worn genre clichés. Just take a second to close your eyes and imagine how you think this film will end, and I guarantee 99% of you already have the correct answer.
That being said, films mimic life in that they’re often about the journey, and not the destination. The only problem is, the journey Gyllenhaal’s character takes in this film isn’t just clichéd, it’s soul-crushingly sombre.
I found that Southpaw was really hard to watch at times; Kurt Sutter’s ‘hero to zero’ screenplay beats you over the head with so much pain and suffering that you’ll feel like you’ve gone twelve rounds with Floyd Mayweather, complete with dizziness and ringing ears. Just when you think Billy’s life is about to pick up, Sutter deals us another crushing blow to remind you what kind of movie you’re watching.
In the hands of a less capable actor, Southpaw would be irredeemably bleak; and yet, with the human chameleon that is Gyllenhaal in the lead, we’re treated to a transformative performance that’ll leave audiences transfixed. Much like he did in the excellent media critique that was Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal disappears into the role of Billy Hope in a way that few other actors could. Almost unrecognisable, his commitment to the raw physicality this role demands is worth the price of admission alone.
Better still, we buy into Gyllenhaal’s character thanks to the array of talent supporting him, most notably his on-screen daughter Oona Laurence. Child actors can be hit and miss, but Laurence confidently shares the screen with Gyllenhaal with a restrained and mature performance. Forest Whitaker’s uncompromising trainer Titus also injects some raw passion and emotion to the film. It’s Rachel McAdams who ends up drawing the short straw; she tries her best as Billy’s dedicated wife Maureen, but her role is two-dimensional and quickly sidelined.
Fuqua’s direction also deserves some praise; the fight scenes are visceral and genuinely affecting, with the combination of quick cuts, slo-mo and confronting framing putting the audience right there in the ring.
At the end of the day, watching Southpaw is a bit like eating a Big Mac; depressing, loaded with the exact same ingredients as a million others like it and weighed down by the foresight of knowing EXACTLY how this is going to end. And yet, you can’t help but enjoy it when you’re in the moment.
The Verdict: 6/10
The clichéd plot churns out the same beats we’ve seen in countless other boxing films, but the talented cast, and an exceptional performance by Gyllenhaal, bring enough emotional gravitas to the table to distract you from the mediocre writing.