“Southpaw” was a film I could not wait to see. It was number nine on my Most Anticipated Films of 2015 list that I made at the beginning of the year. It had everything going for it. An established director in Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), an incredible cast, including Rachel McAdams, Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker, and a jacked Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent marketing and trailers, and a soundtrack produced by Eminem.
Sadly, the film did not meet my expectations. “Southpaw” is far from a bad film. In fact, it is a very good film that is bogged down by an unbalanced story arch and too much melodrama for its own good.
“Southpaw” brings us into the life of professional boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal). Billy is the reigning world champion and living in a monstrous mansion with his beautiful wife Maureen (McAdams) and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). He’s the kind of boxer that can take a hit, but punches back twice as hard, which is taking a tole on his body. Tragedy strikes the Hope family when Maureen dies during an altercation at a charity event. Billy, feeling Maureen’s death is his fault, spirals into drug use, alcoholism, and depression, eventually losing everything, including Leila to social services, his title, his boxing license, and his reputation. In an attempted comeback, Billy reaches out to boxing trainer Tick Mills (Whitaker) to not only get back to the boxer that he was, but to get back to the man that he was and get his daughter back.
All the performances in the film are top notch. After giving brilliant performances in 2013’s “Prisoners” and last year’s “Nightcrawler”, Gyllenhaal knocks it out of the park yet again. He really transforms himself into Billy, both physically and emotionally, embodying a man with an undeniable love for his family and boxing, yet tortured by guilt. It is one of the best of 2015. McAdams does some of the best work of her career as the strong-willed Maureen and Laurence shows a lot of potential as Leila. Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson is perfect as Billy’s smarmy agent. And Forrest Whitaker gives his best performance is a long time and should be given serious consideration when Academy voters cast their ballots for Best Supporting Actor.
Along with the performances, we get some solid direction by Antoine Fuqua as well excellent music, both from the hip-hop heavy soundtrack produced by Eminem and one of the final scores from the late James Horner.
My problem with “Southpaw” lies in the screenplay. Written by Kurt Sutter (T.V.’s ‘Sons of Anarchy’), the film should have been a gritty comeback story, but winds up being overly melodramatic. I think Sutter was attempting to give us the drama and character study of “Raging Bull” and the boxing of “Rocky”, but he doesn’t succeed in either. The script also focuses so much on the downfall of Billy, which is compelling for a time, but ends up redundant and preposterous in some scenes. We can only see Billy dig himself into this massive whole of depression for so long before we stop caring. Then, the film speeds through Billy’s recovery and final fight into a cliche` ending. I wished it had been more about the comeback than the downfall.
Story arch aside, “Southpaw” is still a good movie. It isn’t the boxing classic I had hoped it would be, but it is still worth seeing because of the great performances, impressive filmmaking, and some truly authentic boxing scenes.
MY RATING – 3/4
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