Success, failure and redemption are three prerequisite rounds of any boxing film. The successful ones, such as Raging Bull or The Fighter, find a way to make you care between those bouts.
By those standards, Southpaw fits like a glove. It has an orphaned boy from Hell’s Kitchen in New York who has just become the lightweight boxing world champion for the fourth time, his beautiful wife who has risen from that same life and is now a constant companion through the good times and bad, and a well-adjusted daughter who dotes on him. And then appears a brash challenger, follows a senseless encounter that ends in death, and a life comes apart. Our boxer finds his wife gone, and daughter taken.
With Jake Gyllenhaal playing him, Billy Hope’s rise from the ashes of his life should be a gripping watch.
Should be. In the hands of Fuqua, a director known for stylised violence, sketchy stories and flashes of promise, all of the above is too much detail for what he is essentially interested in. And as a boxer himself, that is to get Hope as long and as quickly as possible into the ring.
Gyllenhaal too is curiously disappointing, more caught up in his own character, with its tattoos, its constantly puffed eye and its mumbled speaking, than in genuine contact with either the people around him or his audience. There are many scenes of Billy and his daughter Leila (played by the most promising actor in this film after McAdams, Laurence), but never do you sense the desperation he constantly professes to feel to get her back.
The desperate showmanship, at the expense of storytelling, is most evident in the choice of 50 Cent to play Billy’s manager Jordan. The rapper/entertainer is unintelligible, inexpressive and totally pointless, but he keeps popping up to land one more blow on Billy — all unanticipated by him.
In the beginning, there is the fight, where Billy, defending his title, gets a pummelling that provokes an outpouring of concern from his supportive wife Maureen (McAdams). She warns him that his hangers-on are only interested in the profits, unmindful of the price his 43-year-old body is paying, not just because of the hits but also because of the way he fights.
However, the constant berating of an upstart challenger — the unfortunately named Escobar from Colombia — is too provocative to resist, and Billy at last gets into an argument with him that proves decisive. One of the best scenes in the film involves a slow death from a bullet wound, and the complete surprise with which it takes everybody.
As Billy quickly loses his millions — not satisfactorily explained how — and his senses, Leila is taken away by family services. To get his act together, Billy heads to Wills’ Gym, where waits a fatherly figure in the form of Wills (Whitaker). Fewer people come in more fatherly forms, and Wills doesn’t have just the bearing, but also the bearings — including children off the streets and troubled homes he is training, and rules that forbid swearing or imbibing anything foul of any sort in his gym.
We know where that is headed, but even then Billy gets a black kid called Hoppy (pronounced Hope-y) of own to chaperon.
In the end, there is the fight — of course.
If you must, shed a tear or two for Gyllenhaal’s left eye. It’s doubtful he can — seldom has a body organ been put through more abuse.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent
Director: Antoine Fuqua