The following review contains a pretty major spoiler for Southpaw that was also included in the film’s first trailer.
About as subtle as a right uppercut to the jaw, Southpaw is nonetheless a welcome addition to the boxing melodrama genre. The film doesn’t even try to be original. It contains echoes of Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, even that Jon Voight weepie, The Champ. And its director, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), who excels at a kind of blunt, male poetry, has managed to bring us our first truly cathartic tearjerker of the summer.
Jake Gyllenhaal, jacked up nearly beyond recognition, plays undefeated light heavyweight champ Billy Hope (I know), who met his wife and soulmate Maureen (Rachel McAdams) at the orphanage where they both grew up. Billy has a lot of rage as a result of his childhood, and Maureen and his 10-year-old daughter Leila (talented Oona Laurence) are basically the only ones who can soothe him. He works himself into a lather in the ring—absorbing punch after punch, his face a bloody mess, until he’s able to land a ferocious knockout blow—and then, at home, Maureen is slowly able to remove the thorns from his paws. To some extent, Southpaw is a movie about a saintly woman with the power to save a troubled bruiser, but I bought the Maureen/Billy relationship. The fact that they were both raised in the system is a clever touch—it’s always been them against the world.
One night, Billy and Maureen attend a gala fundraiser for the orphanage. In the lobby, he’s confronted by a rival boxer (Miguel Gomez) looking for a shot at the title, who makes a sexually vulgar comment about Maureen. Billy lunges for him, there’s a scuffle, and a gun goes off. Maureen, who had been begging Billy to just walk away from the confrontation, gets hit by a stray bullet and she dies in Billy’s arms, as he wails helplessly. (A tiny detail I noticed and appreciated in this scene: Billy’s best friend and quasi bodyguard, played by Beau Knapp, is also weeping. Usually, in a scene like that the entourage would be posturing or looking to retaliate, but rarely breaking down emotionally.)
Without Maureen, Billy’s life, predictably, spirals out of control. He begins drinking heavily and drugging, he loses his mansion, and Leila is taken into child protective services. His predatory manager (a surprisingly effective Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) convinces him to take another fight—but he just quits in the ring, allowing himself to be pummeled with no resistance. Then, in a rage, he head-butts a ref and gets suspended.
What happens next is, well, what always happens in movies like this. Billy goes to a modest, dingy gym run by Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a former pro boxer who now trains inner city kids. Billy takes a demeaning job at the gym, and begs Tick to train him, in the hopes of reclaiming his dignity, his daughter, and his championship belt. Did I mention that Tick dispenses useful life wisdom like he’s Oprah and is a really, really good trainer? But you knew that already.
Gyllenhaal, who’s been on something of a roll lately, does great work in this “palooka with a heart of gold” part, although his taciturn, mumbling performance can’t help but to evoke those who came before him. (Along with De Niro and Stallone, there’s a touch of Channing Tatum’s bear-like manchild in Foxcatcher). His physicality in the role is truly an extraordinary thing—you believe that he can take punch after punch; and his coarse, Thing-like largeness is especially touching when tiny Leila takes his hand.
Whitaker is great, too, although his part is completely undeveloped, as if Fuqua were relying on cultural shorthands from other movies to fill in the blanks (there’s even a touch of Mr. Miyagi in him). Still, the two actors share some affecting scenes together, particularly after yet another tragedy bonds them even further.
The fight scenes, expertly cut by Fuqua’s longtime editor John Fefoua, have a raw, visceral impact—it’s clear the actors were really slugging away at each other (aided by those “pow!” and “thwack!” sound effects), although one of Billy’s Tick-taught ring strategies—shielding an injured eye with a raised shoulder—looks a bit awkward.
There’s a new Eminem song in Southpaw that is good but sounds a whole lot like . . . every other Eminem song. And that serves as a fitting metaphor for Southpaw itself. Would you rather have a derivative new Eminen song or none at all?