HOLLYWOOD—I don’t know what it is about boxing flicks that seem to be such crowd-pleasers. With “The Hurricane” and “The Fighter” audiences got the opportunity to root for an underdog with plenty of dramatic flair. The latest boxing flick to hit theaters, “Southpaw” takes a formula that has been used before to introduce audiences to the character of Billy Hope. The flick does earn points for presenting a boxing tale that isn’t afraid to showcase a bit of violence in the ring; particularly the level of blood and bruises a fighter might endure in a duel.
The film revolves around Billy (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is a boxer who battles a ton of demons including alcohol and a temper. His rise from unknown boxer to a notable heavyweight champion is an inspiring tale to say the least. At the core of the narrative is Billy’s relationship with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Adams delivers a level of strength to a character that keeps Billy at a sane level. When Billy’s ego leads to a brawl with another boxer it results in his wife being shot and killed. This is no spoiler here as the filmmakers decided to introduce this twist in the story to viewers in the trailer. Do I honestly believe this was a mistake? Without a doubt, I think the impact would have been much stronger on the viewer if they were unaware of Maureen’s death, instead of having this tidbit introduced before even entering the theater.
With most boxing greats, Billy falls into a deep depression where alcohol consumes his life and with the snap of a finger he loses everything: his title, his riches and even his daughter. That might be the driving force of the rest of the flick in my opinion. His daughter falls into the cracks of the foster care system, and Billy has to grapple with the fact that his daughter no longer views him as her hero. She is experiencing a life that he also experienced during his childhood; things aren’t pretty. This forces Billy to reach out to Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker), who reluctantly trains Billy and gives him a job as a janitor to get back on his feet.
This is where I feel the flick loses a bit of originality, because for a second I was almost certain I was watching a scene from “Million Dollar Baby.” Remember the old, grumpy character portrayed by Clint Eastwood. Well Whitaker’s character mirrors a mix of both Eastwood and Morgan Freeman’s character from that movie.
There are also supporting roles by Naomie Harris, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Miguel Gomez. Writer Kurt Sutter excels when the focus is on Billy and his daughter. The other characters come and go, but those two are the emotional heartstrings of the movie.
With an uneven script, it is direction from “Training Day” alum Antoine Fuqua that delivers some epic boxing scenes. They are visceral and in your face; presenting small glimmers of those classics like “Raging Bull.” Jake Gyllenhaal hands down is phenomenal in the movie. He transforms himself physically and mentally into a character that the audience will immediately connect with and root for; which is the intended goal of the filmmakers. There has been a bit of Oscar buzz for Gyllenhaal’s performance and I wouldn’t disagree with those pundits, but how the public respond to the flick will have an impact in my opinion.
While the movie loses a few notches for not constructing a tale that hasn’t been seen before, it wins on heart alone by the performance that Jake brings to a character that will resonate with moviegoers. “Southpaw” is not a perfect flick, but it delivers that uppercut that will indeed leave a lasting impression on viewers upon exiting the theater.