“So, what brings Billy Hope to my gym?” asks Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). “I’m looking for a job, maybe a place to train,” answers Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), former lightweight champion of the boxing world who has fallen on hard times and has lost his daughter to child protection services in the dramatic movie, Southpaw.
Only a few months earlier, Billy had everything a man could want in life: a beautiful, loyal, smart and loving wife (Rachel McAdams), an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence), a big fancy house, fast cars, and the title of lightweight champion of the world. Billy always relied on his furious temper to help him defeat his opponents in the ring but when that same temper causes a deadly, tragic accident, Billy’s life quickly crumbles and his manager (50 Cent) leaves him behind to pursue other talented boxers.
Not having anywhere or anyone to turn to from his old life, and having completely failed his daughter by losing her to child protective services for drinking and having a loaded gun in her presence, Billy turns to Tick Willis, a retired fighter and trainer from the fight game and owner of a local gym. Together, the two men work to train Billy to get him in shape and to get him back into the ring to fight to get his life and his daughter back.
Reminiscent of great boxing films like Rocky, Rocky 3, The Champ, and Raging Bull, Southpaw avoids being a by-the-numbers, cliché boxing film with the help of exceptional performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams. It’s written as a classic redemption story but what raises the film to a higher level is the complexity and depth of Gyllenhaal’s performance. As a fighter who came from the streets and had to fight his way out and into the ring, Jake portrays Billy as a not too bright, tough hothead who loves his family and loves being champ. After tragedy strikes and Billy is faced with dealing with two-faced friends and raising his daughter alone, he fails miserably and yet the audience will still be rooting for him to make a comeback because of Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a loving but uneducated man. The scenes with Billy visiting his daughter while being supervised are heartbreaking.
Forest Whitaker is perfectly cast as Willis, the old, past-his-prime trainer who eventually becomes Billy’s only trustworthy friend as well as his trainer and boss. Gyllenhaal and Whitaker have great chemistry together and in addition to some traditional training montages, share a few quiet, touching scenes together as two men who realize they only have each other to lean on.
Rachel McAdams shines as Billy’s loving, smart, and sexy wife who knows her husband better than he knows himself and is really the brains of the couple. Once again McAdams is able to create sizzling chemistry with her leading man as well as a very likable and classy character for the short time she’s on screen. In fact, when her character exits the film, her absence leaves a huge void in the movie that’s never filled.
The direction by Antoine Fuqua (Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen) is strong and best in the quieter moments, giving his actors a few seconds to show a range of emotions that aren’t usually present in films like this. The boxing scenes are impressively shot, similar to watching a boxing match on HBO.
The biggest flaw in the film is the speed of Billy’s downfall from the good life. In a matter of only a few months he goes from being number one lightweight boxer to broke and homeless. It’s way too fast and not very believable. Also, there’s not much reference and focus on changing Billy’s fighting style from brutal slugger to becoming a Southpaw – the title of the film.
Although unlikely to become a boxing cinema classic like Rocky or Raging Bull, Southpaw is still a crowd-pleasing and emotionally effective film that will have the audience invested in Billy’s life and future. You’ll be rooting for Billy to win both in and out of the ring. In short, it’s a contender.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, and some violence
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2015
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