Jake Gyllenhaal’s exceptional performance as fictional light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope propels “Southpaw” to lofty heights. No, the new boxing melodrama directed, by Antoine Fuqua and written by Kurt Sutter, doesn’t quite live up to the high standards of “Rocky” or “Raging Bull”.
It lacks the artistic quality of each of those films and too often borrows its motifs from previous boxing movies to reach that high a standard. But despite the constant bombardment of overused clichés, “Southpaw” ends up being an emotionally stirring film, one worth watching and contemplating after.
The movie’s greatest accomplishment is its attempt at realism. While real boxing isn’t quite so over-the-top as depicted in almost every boxing film ever made, Fuqua at least attempts to show the subtle nuances of the sweet science. If Hope were a real boxer, he’d be a cross between the late Arturo Gatti and what most currently believe Gennady Golovkin will turn out to be. He’s a fierce and skilled offensive force of nature that goes after opponents with everything he has.
The movie opens with Hope as an undefeated light heavyweight champion on the verge of retirement. He’s the type of action star fight fans love. He delivers knockouts, and does so at the expense of his own body. But while the boxing shown in the movie seems to be the best of Gatti-Ward for every second of action, Fuqua at least shows the toll such brutality takes on a fighter and emphasizes the importance of footwork and defense. After one such Gatti-esque title defense, Hope cannot even take off his own socks because of the beating he took.
There are other things the movie gets right, too. Its depiction of the shady characters in boxing is spot on. It isn’t so much that Hope’s promoter, Jordan Mains, played by Curtis Jackson, is evil. It’s that he’s always looking out for his best interests the way real boxing promoters do. Oh sure, he might say things to his fighters like they are family and such, but that’s all just part of the game. Boxing is full of these types: people who say things they don’t mean to people they don’t care about solely so they can take advantage of them.
As seen in the preview, Hope’s wife, Maureen, played by Rachel McAdams, is tragically shot and killed when Hope gets in a scuffle with a rival contender after a charity event. McAdams’ performance is as noteworthy as Gyllenhaal’s, albeit in much less screen time. In fact, the formulaic events that transpire as the film progresses seem less so because of this dynamic duo’s artistic efforts. Gyllenhaal and McAdams are simply outstanding, probably the saving grace of the movie overall.
The movie tugs at your heartstrings. Hope’s struggle in being a father to his daughter, Leila, after his wife dies leads many in the audience to tears during multiple times during the film. It almost seems to be overly done. But the ultimate redemption of the appropriately named Hope as both a fighter and a father leaves the watcher exactly where he or she probably wants to be by the end of movie: feeling redeemed.
“Southpaw” is a modern-day “Rocky.” What is lacks in heart and humor, it makes up for in grit and edginess. You won’t fall in love with Hope, his wife or his daughter the way you fell for Rocky and Adrian Balboa. But you will root for the characters none-the-less because they seem so real. This film is a knockout.