Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself again for this turn as a champion lightweight boxer. A somewhat unbalanced script by Kurt Sutter hits hard when it hits but has a tendency to fall short on the smaller details. Stunning performances, great cinematography, and a fairly fresh take on the boxing movie makes Southpaw a worthy effort and a drama worth seeing.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on top of the world. With an unconventional fighting style and a staggering record of 43-0 he lives large with the love of his life, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Both brought up through the system Billy and Maureen live large and spend their money as fast as Billy can make it. During a scuffle, the direct result of Billy’s rough career and volatile anger management issues a scuffle at a charity event starts a chain reaction that brings Billy to a previously unseen low. Billy seeks out an old school, no nonsense trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), to not only rebuild him as a fighter, but as a man.
Gyllenhaal has been a familiar name since 2001’s Donnie Darko. In the last few years he has proven that he is one of the best young actors working today. End of Watch, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler were all phenomenal movies that show the actor in his prime. Southpaw in its entirety isn’t as good as the previously mentioned films but Gyllenhaal isn’t any weaker of an actor. He owns the role of Billy Hope. He captures the character’s background, future, persona in the ring, out of the ring, in front of the media, with his daughter, and with his wife. Hope is a complex character that only a very capable actor could get across without a single line of exposition to explain the motives or feelings. Forest Whitaker also rises to the challenges of his character. His acting feats are almost more impressive than Gyllenhaal’s since the old boxer turned mentor is painfully underwritten in the script.
McAdams seems to have two sides to her career. The love interest, and the actress. In this movie she gets to play both but more of the latter in the position of the former. Her character, Maureen, is Hope’s world. She manages his career and makes all the family decisions. She isn’t controlling, the two are in love. For Billy, she is truly the part of the old standby saying ‘my better half.’ It isn’t a spoiler to say that Maureen dies, that is the premise of the movie. That being said Kurt Sutter’s script does such a phenomenal job setting Maureen up and establishing her relationship with Billy and Leila that when the big dramatic moment you know is coming, comes, it still packs an incredible punch.
Kurt Sutter is an outstanding writer/creator. Southpaw is his first feature length screenplay and it shows a lot of promise. When Gyllenhaal, McAdams, and Laurence are on screen the story is as solid as the actors in the roles. When the story branches away from the family drama the scenes are slightly under developed and, to no fault of the actors, the character’s more so. At an average run time of 123 minutes Southpaw could have actually used an extra thirty minutes to develop, at the very least, Forest Whitaker’s Tick Wills. More of a relationship between Wills and Hope would’ve catapulted this movie from ‘pretty good’ to ‘great.’ Despite seeing a lot of Sutter’s influence he was not the director. Antoine Fuqua who has worked on some truly amazing films brought his gritty style and realism to Southpaw.
The cinematography in Southpaw is great. Is has some familiar styling for fans of Sutter’s style in The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. The camera is always moving without being nauseating. It keeps the energy up. The editing is snappy where it needs to be and lingers on shots that require deeper contemplation. The shots in the ring are a perfect balance. There isn’t six cuts per punch many American action movies somehow still fall victim too. There are plenty of articles on the internet about Gyllenhaal taking this role very seriously and training not only for the physicality of the role but also the technical skills of a boxer. It shows. Every time Gyllenhaal is on camera, in or out of the ring, the audience only sees Billy.
The issues that can be found in Southpaw aren’t glaring ones. Just a lot of small ones. For such a character driven piece there is little character development given to the supporting cast. Billy’s manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) is slimy and self serving, his friends are stereotypes and only one is somewhat recurring. Even Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez), has glimpses of being an actual character but in the end is summed up as ‘bad guy.’
All things considered Southpaw is worth a watch. When the story is focusing on the family at it’s core it is immensely powerful. A little more development on the supporting cast is needed. Sutter creates phenomenal TV and this was an excellent first attempt at a feature length script. Gyllenhaal is also continuing dominating his profession.
As a quick side note SPOILERS FOLLOW:
Why was the kid’s caseworker hanging out in Vegas at the end of the movie?! She had no business being there. Is a NYC child caseworker really that hard up for work she can follow one kid who was already taken OUT of the system around the country? Stretching your imagination you can come up with an explanation, but the movie really needed to address this. At least the story didn’t undermine the main plot by forcing a love interest between Hope and Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris).
Adam’s Verdict 3.5/5
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