Release Date: July 24th, 2015 (UK & US)
Genre: Action; Drama; Sport
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker
The fact that Southpaw struggles to hurdle the proverbial style over substance dilemma is perhaps not particularly surprising given its director Antoine Fuqua recently doused the silver screen with The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen. Having said that, Fuqua was also the man behind Training Day back in 2001, and had he borrowed more of that movie’s mettle, the filmmaker might have been onto a winner with this otherwise fairly conventional sports drama.
“Billy Hope” is a classic boxing name, the sort given to someone destined to surmount typical obstacles. True to form, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an underdog: orphaned at a young age, odds stacked against him from the get-go, we meet Hope right before he is about to box for the World Light Heavyweight Title in Madison Square Garden. He wins. And that’s fine; boxing movies tend to be underdog movies for a reason — in real life, the sport is all about rising above adversity and showing heart, so it is right cinema should reflect that.
But when dazzling shots of New York City find significant screen time, something feels off. Commercialism is in the air and it rears its rich head more often than it ought to. Sure, this idealist aura fits when Hope is champion and resultantly wrapped up in his material world — he and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a fellow orphan, live in a plush home with their adolescent daughter — but as soon as the fighter loses everything, materiality should no longer be his goal. For a while, it isn’t.
After Hope’s victory, the film is dead-set on convincing us that boxers never truly win. From subtle hints at memory loss, to his wife’s misgivings about him competing again, to the actions of another title contender, the darker side of boxing is emphasised. Of course, tragedy is bound to strike and when it does it’s really quite heartbreakingly played by the people involved. Those who have seen the trailer will know what happens — I’ll avoid the particulars, though it is easy to work out. The abrupt nature of the tragedy suggests it is merely a narrative device designed to propel Hope’s story forward, and although there is truth to that line of thought, it does also introduce compelling themes such as fatherhood with greater heft.
The legal resolution to the tragedy is poorly realised; the consequences seem lazily construed (harsh punishments are dealt to innocent parties, whereas the guilty gang appear to get away scot-free). Left wallowing in despair, Hope turns again to boxing rather than his equally distraught daughter, and then to drink and violence when the fighting does not pan out. His once loyal promoter (50 Cent) drops him without any incline of regret because, after all, “it’s just business”. Here, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s screenplay highlights the ruthless side of the sport, the corporate face that wholly goes against boxing’s brotherly backbone.
Gyllenhaal channels Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, muttering and growling through helpings of dialogue. We watch him navigate home life with busted ribs and a busted face, and the actor sells the agony with so much realism you wonder whether he literally took a beating for his craft. The typical boxer stereotypes are enforced: Hope can’t really spell, nor is he a great public speaker outside the world of boxing, but at least we get a chance to see these anxieties play out. In truth he isn’t an especially well written character, erratic, for example, in moments of should-be clarity — an introductory conversation between he and maturing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) combusts out of nowhere.
I’m not entirely sure how Whitaker meant to portray Tick; he flirts between calm and crazed a little too enthusiastically. Oona Laurence ably pulls off Hope’s book smart daughter. She has lovely poise and avoids the potentially suffocating Grating Child Actor trap. This is the Gyllenhaal show though. He manages to terrify and reflect instability, yet still garner our complete sympathy. Indeed it is a transformative performance, but the muscular physicality is almost irrelevant. His heavy face, his anguished voice, his bowed eyes — these are the traits that actually engage us.
But as unoriginal training montages begin to arrive, coaxed on by Eminem, the overly produced aura makes a comeback. I think the film gets too caught up in reaching an idealistic end point: it needs to better separate the grit and the glam (it does for a while and works as a result), because the glam is poison and we do not want our reformed anti-hero seeking out poison. Million Dollar Baby is an example of a film that brilliantly subverts the recognisable model. Fuqua, it seems, can’t quite help chasing another false dream.
We do see an apt balance of grit and glam inside the ring. Fights are HBO presentations, and broadcasting mainstays Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. provide commentary. Wide shots positively feed the authentic televisual nature of the matches (as opposed to lingering on the boxers’ faces, common in Rocky and Raging Bull, those films likely limited by their technical capabilities). The fight choreography even evokes reality: head and body clinches are plentiful, and a blood-sweat concoction violently sprays at the behest of punches. One particularly intuitive camera movement vaults backwards over the top rope after a brutal uppercut.
Apart from that, there is nothing new going on here. Fuqua directs on familiar ground, navigating efficiently through the usual peaks and troughs before landing where all boxing movies land. His lead actor elevates the material, but even he needs more support from those around him (main villain Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is woefully wafer-thin). Southpaw was probably never going to be a true contender, but thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy Hope is at least somebody.
Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company