Wikipedia informs me that ‘Southpaw’ underwent a number of production changes. Initially, this screenplay penned by Kurt Stutter was written with Eminem in mind for the lead role. Antoine Fuqua was set to direct (that seems to be the only constant here). The picture went from being a DreamWorks production to an MGM one to a Columbia Pictures one until finally The Weinstein Company ended up distributing the film. Instead of Eminem, we have Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead.
This is one of the more challenging reviews I’ve had to write in recent memory. Not because the plot is difficult to break down by any means. No, it is because this is one of those rare “on the one hand, on the other hand” experiences. Is the glass half full or half empty?
I dunno. I sort of liked it. But, at the same time, I was disappointed that this movie wasn’t even remotely interested in surprising us even a little bit. Throw every boxing movie ever made (from ‘The Champ’ to ‘The Fighter’) into a blender and you get ‘Southpaw’. Mr. Stutter’s script is about as intelligent as the mumbling hero of the picture (even if it fares well with boxing details and has a big heart), but the cast gives it their all, and it is almost enough to make it work. Almost.
When we first meet Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), he is at the height of his fame. Billy and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) are products of Hell’s Kitchen orphanages, and the two do everything they can to ensure their sweet, 10-year-old daughter Leila (performed wonderfully by Oona Laurence) doesn’t have the kind of upbringing they had. A lot will be said about Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation for his role here, but McAdams is equally impressive and fully embodies a much tougher character than we’re used to seeing her play.
Billy is a world heavyweight champion with a 43-0 record. So, of course, something awful has to happen. After being taunted into a brawl with an up-and-coming, trash-talking boxer (Miguel Gomez), tragedy strikes. Billy spirals into self-destructive behavior and loses his wife, his mansion, his cars, his title, his manager, his career, and his daughter to child-services.
With brooding eyes and infrangible abs, Gyllenhaal plays a haunted soul just about perfectly. He delivers his lines slowly (this is a movie that knows just what a concussion can do to someone’s brain), and when his raging bull tendencies kick in, chairs and tables are tossed. There are a lot of close-ups so you can see the bereavement on his face. If this sounds like a painful watch, just remember his last name is Hope, so you can guess where this story goes.
Billy has to learn to live smart, and then fight smart – maybe the defensive maneuvering he learns inside the ring will help him become a better person outside the ring. Following his downfall, Billy walks into a dingy New York gym to seek the help of Tick Willis (a battered Forest Whitaker). I can’t make this appear any less clichéd than it is, but the actors elevate it with a depiction that is as complex as it is perfectly calibrated.
The performances are first-rate (though I could have done without Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and the movie underutilizes Naomie Harris). ‘Southpaw’ tries very hard to yank on our heartstrings, especially during the family court scenes. Gyllenhaal and young Laurence make such a great matched pair that we don’t mind being manipulated, if we’re completely aware of it.
Mr. Fuqua has always been great at staging action, and even if the fight that concludes the picture looks like many other fights we have seen in the movies, it still packs quite a visceral punch. Eminem didn’t get a starring role here, but at least his music is featured in one of the training montages, which is an abrupt change from the touching and delicate musical score by the great late James Horner (the film is dedicated to his memory). Like the titular boxer, this picture comes through as a light heavyweight – this story of redemption may not be exactly convincing, but if you can accept it as an R-rated fairytale, it is sort of effective. What we have here is a split decision. It’s a win for the actors, but the movie loses to conventionalism. Reluctantly, I can’t quite recommend ‘Southpaw’. But, I wouldn’t for a second dissuade you from seeing it. QED.