“Oh look it’s a boxing movie, cinema hasn’t seen that before,” is a cynical thought that would have gone through most minds when Southpaw was first announced. Having it directed by Antoine Fuqua, who brought us Training Day and The Equalizer, and written by Kurt Sutter, a man who worked extensively on Sons of Anarchy inspired a bit of hope, but things didn’t seem really interesting until we saw the name Jake Gyllenhaal on paper. Gyllenhaal has become a virtuoso of late – more recently seen and celebrated in Nightcrawler – and the prospect of him breaking out into a boxing movie, complete with all the expected underdog, revenge, and perseverance tropes, at least made it seem like a relatively refreshing entry to a tired genre.
Though stretched thin, boxing films do provide the necessary palette for high stakes drama. From the have-it-all to the downfall to the redemption, there is so much tension behind those bright red gloves at times that the literal blood and sweat seem like the softest part of the often brutal and taxing sport. None of the pitfalls of boxing are held back here, rather the punches are clearly shown all over Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) as his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) tries to convince him to walk away to the sake of their only child, Leila, played with empathy and innocence by Oona Laurence.
Gyllenhaal trained for four months to gain 15 pounds of muscle, shaping himself into Billy, a tattered and torn light-heavyweight champ who, when we first meet him, is undefeated and unstoppable yet clearly fighting through pain. McAdams’ pleas for her husband to tone it down before he becomes “punch drunk” are contradicted by dollar-eyed Jordan Mains (50 Cent), Hope’s manager and self-proclaimed friend who has no qualms about abandoning Hope when the chips are down. There’s no way out of this and it looks like we’re going to get a linear story until Maureen is tragically gunned down in a chaotic hotel lobby scuffle with boxing rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
Maureen’s death is a harrowing scene, handled with relentless camera work while Gyllenhaal and McAdams both show how much depth and emotional intensity they can create on-screen together. The film seemed asleep until that moment, ironically springing to life with tragedy at it’s core and pushing Gyllenhaal into a mix of rage, depression, and crippling grief; a dangerous concoction which the actor manages to steamroll into terrifying territory.
Augmenting his pain is the legal system, recognising that Hope is a danger to himself and forcefully ripping his daughter away from him. Gyllenhall, McAdams and Laurence create a believable, sympathetic family dynamic when they are together, not really taking effect until Billy is all on his own and this goes from just another boxing movie to something much more.
The aforementioned mix of age, depression, and crippling grief gives Gyllenhaal a lot to work with, and the actor lets each facet of his downfall subtly leak through in almost every scene, with a stunning physical performance that almost immediately makes you forgive the compounding cliches that pull Southpaw back into the ring and beat the sense out of it. The actor saves this movie in every sense, shining even when things aren’t quite working around him.
Training montages and clumsily handled subplots do dirty the energy of the story at times, but with a great sense of emotion and empathy, the cast behind Southpaw deliver an unexpected knockout, particularly Gyllenhaal and on-screen daughter Laurence whose on-screen chemistry, while infrequent, make this film what it is.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Southpaw hits Australian theatres Thursday 20th August.