To say I came to Southpaw with some expectations is an understatement. Jake Gyllenhaal has turned into one of the best actors of this generation, writer Kurt Sutter has made some of the best television of the last decade, and director Antoine Fuqua made Training Day. Regardless of the fact that Training Day was 14 years ago and Kurt Sutter has never written a movie script before, I had hope for this movie. Unfortunately, outside of some really good acting performances, this movie falls short with a predictable plot, uneven storytelling, and boxing cliché after boxing cliché.
Billy “The Great” Hope grew up an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen to become an undefeated boxer and champion at the pinnacle of his profession. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), also an orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, urges Billy to take some time away after his latest fight or go out on top before the punches take too big a toll, and urging him to think about his future with his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). At the same time, he’s getting pressured by his promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) to sign a three-fight contract. And there is a young, brash boxer named Ramone (Victor Ortiz) who is trashing Billy and angling to get a fight. An incident between Billy and Ramone’s crews at a speaking engagement leaves Maureen dead and sends Billy into a tailspin. In short order, he loses his wife, his profession, his home, his money, and his daughter. Hitting rock bottom, he turns to Tick Wills (Forrest Whitaker), a trainer of a former opponent, in the hopes of turning his life around and regaining what he has lost.
The story could be summed up as a riches-to-rags-to-riches story of redemption. Billy is on top of the world living the good life in a big house with nice cars and showering his friends with lavish gifts. He loses everything, winding up homeless in a downward spiral after his wife’s death, and then starts to build his life back up one piece at a time. The film does a good job showing Billy’s struggle to adjust to his new situation after living such a pampered life for so long, and how he must learn to humble himself and swallow his pride in order to move forward and grow. It’s not an easy task, especially when he’s the former champion of the world and Tick is telling him to clean his gym at night, even the toilets. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but Billy does it for his daughter
The center of the story is the relationship between Billy and his daughter Leila. As Maureen handled pretty much everything in their life outside of the ring, Billy is at a loss without her and struggles to hang on. His daughter sees him at some very low points. When she is taken away, it strains their relationship, resulting in her lashing out at him. It’s a confusing and painful time for the both of them and feels authentic. When Billy finally has it explained to him that he needs to be there for his daughter, even if it’s as an object for her to hate and lash out at, he resolves himself to the task. It’s an impressive portrayal of love, showing up to talk to her case worker, Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris) even when Leila refuses to even see him.
The two main performances of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker and the performance of the young Oona Laurence as Leila make this film worth seeing. In particular, Gyllenhaal has truly turned into one of the premiere actors of this generation. He started out as an indie darling (Donnie Darko), dabbled in some Hollywood blockbusters (The Day After Tomorrow, Prince of Persia), and found his way into some critically acclaimed films (Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac), but he was rarely the best thing in those movies. His post-Prince of Persia resume has seen an actor who is challenging himself and losing himself in his roles, and garnering critical praise himself. His previous film, Nightcrawler, had him looking gaunt and ghost-like as Lew Bloom. Here he is bulked up and genuinely looks the part of a professional boxer. While Billy Hope may not be the greatest performance of his career, it’s another impressive role in a string on great work from Gyllenhaal.
Unfortunately, not much outside of the main acting performances does much to distinguish this film from other boxing film contenders. The story makes very plain where it will end up, culminating with a fight between Billy and Ramone. The fights themselves are choreographed well, but have a few moments that strain credulity, in particular, the knockout end of the opening fight. The film uses the boxing commentators to fill in huge chucks of narrative exposition at the beginning.
Sadly, outside of the main characters, the majority of the supporting characters are thinly sketched. Billy’s trainer jumps ship to train Ramone at some point and the script makes a big deal of it, but leaving the theater I would’ve been hard pressed to recall the guy’s name and what he looked like. Rita Ora appears in one scene early on when Billy is lashing out looking for revenge, and given how briefly she appears, it’s difficult to understand why she was cast. I also couldn’t tell you which character Billy goes looking for with a gun when he meets her. Victor Ortiz as Ramone is mostly wasted, a good actor in what could be a juicy role in the few glimpses we are given of him. Ramone is brash in calling out Billy in front of the media, but when Billy is speaking at the fundraiser he elbows his entourage at his table to shut up while he listens, respectfully, at what Billy has to say. It is a small, brief moment that hints at a character with some complexity, but after the fundraiser and the death of Billy’s wife he isn’t heard from again until the final fight.
A few other aspects of the story struck me as odd too. After Billy agrees to fight Ramone, he has a heart to heart moment with Leila where he tells her that she’s going to read and hear a lot of bad things about him over the next six weeks, but the film shows none of that, focusing us only on the training up until the fight. It’s also unclear why Leila’s social worker accompanies them to Vegas for the fight, aside from the fact that they needed to find more screen time for Naomie Harris, who is also wasted in this film. Lastly, the title of the film comes from the last fifteen seconds of the final fight in the film, making it a little nonsensical.
After the first fight in the film, McAdam’s Maureen tells Billy that the harder he gets hit, the harder he fights back. The film tries to show this happening to Billy outside of the ring, life hitting him hard and him eventually fighting back harder, but it just doesn’t quite reach its peak potential. The boxing is solid, with just a few moments that are not quite believable, and the story is entirely predictable, but it is worth recommending on the strength of the central performances.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars