Once the photos of a bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal were released depicting his portrayal of fictional boxer Billy Hope, I think everyone and their mother had high hopes for Antoine Fuqua’s movie, Southpaw. If you were expecting hard-hitting fight scenes that made you dodge jabs and left hooks in your seat, then you got it. If you were expecting goosebumps to run down your back when Gyllenhaal trains to Eminem’s ‘Phenomenal,’ then you got it. And if you were expecting to try to stifle your sobs every other scene, then you definitely got that too. By all standards, it was a phenomenal film and Oscar nominations are definitely in order. However, something about the film struck me as oddly familiar.
Take the third Rocky film, dramatize it by about a thousand and anticipate the wonders of modern-day film, so when the boxer punches his opponent, the sound and the hit actually align perfectly. Do this, add a few twists in the plot, and you’ve got the masterpiece that is Southpaw. This is not to take away from the film in any sense, but rather just a keen observation. The narrative was slightly reminiscent of the third chapter of the Rocky saga in several ways: the provocation of the star boxer by an opponent who wants their chance to fight, that provocation being a disrespectful comment about the star boxers wife, the death of someone close to the star boxer, and of course the right trainer to prepare the star boxer for his fight with the opponent that everyone hates.
As a huge Rocky fan, the similarities in the movie arc were very apparent, but the emotional trajectory was far more intense.
There’s no surprise that Hope’s wife, played by the beautiful Rachel McAdams, dies early on in the film, considering the trailer shows us maybe too much, but the way her death affects Billy Hope and his daughter becomes the driving force in the film, much like the death of his trainer Mickey affects Rocky in a way that only trainer Apollo Creed can bring him back from. You’ll see what I mean, I swear.
Following a string of violent and self-inflicting events to cope with the pain and regret of his wife’s murder, Hope winds up losing his daughter to child protection services. To get back on his feet in order to prove to the court that he can care for his child, he turns to gym trainer, Tick Willis, played by Forest Whitaker. The beauty of Gyllenhaal’s performance is his mumbling speech that accompanies the visual deterioration you can literally feel with every visit between him and his daughter. Pair him with Whitaker, who portrays a passionate Willis, who endures a more subtle struggle of his own, you have a winning pair. Literally, but I don’t want to give away too much.
My only gripe with the film, is that an obvious beef between Hope and 50 Cent’s character, Jordan Mains, is never really settled. Mains, who works as Hope’s promoter and longtime friend, stresses the importance of family over contracts, a number of times throughout the film, and you suspect his betrayal from the beginning. When he eventually moves to rival fighter, Miguel Escobar’s corner on a strictly business venture, one would expect Hope to settle up with his former friend, but that never seems to be the case.
Other than this, the film was beautifully done. The training scenes were visually stunning and the final fight scene felt like you were actually at home watching a huge pay-per-view event on your flat screen, especially with Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr. calling the fight, and real-life referee Tony Weeks controlling the fight. I’m pretty positive there was even a Miguel Cotto reference made in the movie, the boxing star from Puerto Rico who is set to announce his fight with Mexican fighter, Canelo Alvarez, any day now.
In any case, I give the movie two thumbs up and Gyllenhaal and Whitaker my vote for best actor and best supporting actor.