Southpaw Review: Time to throw in the towel?

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Starring: Jake Gylllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence

Please note, this review contains minor spoilers.

Ask anyone to name a movie about boxing, and I bet they wouldn’t struggle. Most people would say Rocky. Some people might say Raging Bull. There is also the more recent The Fighter, Million Dollar Baby, or Cinderella Man. I’d argue that this genre has been overdone, so for a film to stand out amongst these, it would have to be pretty special. Jake Gyllenhaal is the latest to lace up the gloves in Southpaw directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer). Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation from the scrawny sleazeball he played in Nightcrawler to the beefy brawler of Southpaw is quite extraordinary. However, in a film genre which can so easily succumb to cliches, does Gyllenhaal have the acting chops to make it work?

The Overview

Gyllenhaal is the rags to riches boxer, Billy ‘the great’ Hope, undefeated World Champion, with trophy wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) on his arm, and the whole world at his feet. Both he and his wife were orphans, so they dote upon their 10 year old daughter Leila, and have an idyllic family life. At a charity event, a fight breaks out between Hope and a rival boxer, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). In the chaos that follows, Maureen is tragically shot and killed. With his whole world falling apart, Hope spirals out of control. Finding comfort in drugs and alcohol he is deemed unfit to care for his daughter, resulting in her being taken into a home. Blaming himself for Maureen’s death and desperate to win back the love of his daughter, Hope turns to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to get him back into the ring for the ultimate grudge match against Escobar, to get back what was taken from him.

The Good

In a film chock-full of sporting cliches (we’ll get to those!), it is a struggle to wade through the waves of predictability to find some standout moments in Southpaw. The fight scenes are excellent however, brutal but beautiful to watch. In the final match, the camera angles which show the fight from the boxer’s perspective are fantastic.

There was also more raw emotion than I was expecting. When Maureen is shot, Hope desperately holds her in his arms, and rather than cutting away, we linger on him for an uncomfortably long time so we can see the true pain in his face, as he watches his beloved wife slip away. Gyllenhaal really is a fantastic actor, and whilst he doesn’t fully get the chance to shine as the mumbling masochistic Billy Hope, it is in these emotional scenes that we see his talent. Equally emotional are the scenes involving Hope and his daughter, particularly when she is first taken away from him.

All of the acting in Southpaw is as good as it needs to be. It’s a shame Rachel McAdams’ character is killed so early into the film, as I really rate her as an actress. Forest Whitaker does a good enough job as the grizzled former boxer turned coach, Tick Wills, however we don’t really get to delve into this character much as the focus is on Hope.

The Bad

Tragic childhood? Check. Personal tragedy? Check. Training montage? Check. Grudge match? Check. The cliches really rack up as the film progresses, and as with most boxing films, we see redemption, revenge, grudges, losing it all and then winning it all back. So incredibly predictable. Halfway through the film I lost interest, as I was able to second guess most of the things which were going to happen next. In fact as I was making notes for this review, I wrote down the result of the final match about 5 minutes before it even happened!

I guess for fans of the genre, you know exactly what you want from this film, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. My problem is we’ve seen this before. So many times. I was sceptical the second I heard the boxer’s name was Billy Hope. He has one of those surnames where the headlines just write themselves: HOPE RESTORED, WHEN ALL HOPE WAS LOST, NEVER LOSE HOPE etc. There is no shame in how hard these cliches are pummelled into the audience, and it reaches the point where it becomes insulting. Whilst Gyllenhaal does his best to bring a gritty realism to this trite, he can’t save this flawed film.

The Verdict

I saw this movie so you don’t have to. I think if you went into this film knowing exactly what you were going to get, then you probably wouldn’t hate it. If you go in expecting something different to other boxing movies, then you will be very disappointed. It was a relatively easy watch, but too predictable to make it interesting. A film that throws in the towel instead of delivering a knockout punch. Give it a miss.

Agree with everything I’ve said, or am I a terribly misguided idiot who has got it all wrong? Please let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share as well.

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