Jake Gyllenhaal sold me on going to see this movie. Not the cliche redemption story, or the boxer’s story we’ve seen 3,256 times, or even the rise and fall and rise story, not even Eminem, who executive produced the soundtrack (although that was a close second) was able to sell me on seeing this film.
It was J-A-K-E.
But Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t in this movie (more on that later).
From Zodiac to Prisoners to Nightcrawler (WHOA) to Jarhead, I studied Gyllenhaal’s performances (he also showed up in my dreams a few times. We’ll just let that one go). The common thread in all of his movies is Gyllenhaal’s taut rubber band like quality; you can see it in his face, feel it just under the surface, ready to snap – he has a tendency to be his characters, to pour himself into the mold of their skin, not just play them. The same is true for Southpaw – I say Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t in this movie because the only person I saw, heard, and felt was Billy Hope. From his physique (yeah, I guess I noticed), to the way he walked to the way he talked, it was Billy.
Gyllenhaal plays a boxer who is on top of his boxing universe as the light heavy weight champion of the world. He is married to Maureen, played brilliantly by Rachel McAdams (she is phenomenal in this performance), and they have a 10 year old daughter, Leila, played (aka, SLAYED) by Oona Lawrence. 50 Cent plays his manager Jordan Mains (a delightful surprise). He also has various hangers-on in his entourage, most of whom have been with him since his days in The System, having grown up in an orphanage (Maureen is a product of the orphanage as well).
Billy is a hothead. He is a good fighter because he unleashes his inner monster during bouts, which presumably is right under the surface from his days growing up feeling unloved, unwanted, and probably abused. He is not a smart fighter, just a vicious one, and his wife wants him to take a break, enjoy their mansion and toys, but primarily take care of himself and his health, to be there for their daughter (money quote: “Billy you keep fightin’ like this you’re gonna be punch drunk in two years.” Literally stops Billy in his tracks). Maureen is very sharp, very smart, and truly has Billy’s best interests at heart, compared to his manager and entourage who are there for the thrills, cash money, and notoriety. Billy tends to listen to Maureen on all matters, from the business of boxing to raising their daughter, who they both love more than life itself.
After a charity event, Maureen is tragically shot and killed (hey it’s in the trailer!) by the brother of Miguel Escobar, a boxer who desperately wants to knock Billy off his throne. This scene of the altercation and shooting was so well done and harrowing – I had tears pouring down my face. It also appeared to be shot from a hand held camera, which allowed the audience to be right there with Billy and Mo as she dies in his arms. Gyllenhaal, the taut rubber band, Tore. My. Heart. Out.
The rest of the movie follows the typical formula: Billy spirals downward, he loses custody of his daughter (she’s put into an orphanage), and most of his entourage disappears (I think in like, the first week after his wife dies. Classy.). Billy loses his house, his dignity, and most of the sight in his left eye during the next fight, where he also headbutts the referee and gets suspended for a year. Billy drags his dilapidated body and soul into a Harlem gym, where he meets his Redeemer in the form of Forest Whitaker, an ex-boxer turned owner. Whitaker plays “Tick” Wills just about as perfectly as could be, which is absolutely no shock coming from him.
Wills helps Billy understand he needs to change his style of boxing, even throwing a few punches as a Southpaw, in order to put himself on top again. This is also the perfect parallel of what Billy needs to do with his life, which continues on, despite being without his beloved Maureen.
The boxing scenes in the movie are very realistic, considering Gyllenhaal did them all himself, including taking a few punches for real (swoon…). I am not a huge fan of boxing as I truly do not understand the sport, and I cringed more than once during these scenes- if you are at all squeamish you may want to rethink going to see this movie.
Overall I really enjoyed it, even though I could guess what was going to happen from minute one. I don’t think the Director, Antoine Fuqua, cared too much that he was following the redemption/boxer-with-a-heart-of-gold formula to a T, including some of the dialogue (“you gotta WANT it Billy! You need to do this for your daughter!”). I think he knew that his cast could breathe some originality into his movie and make it more. This top notch cast did exactly that.
SOUTHPAW continues its run at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema this week in Winchester, Virginia. Tickets can be found by CLICKING HERE.