You know by now after all these years, if there’s fisticuffs involved, this gal from Philly is gonna have a ringside seat. Written by Kurt Sutter and directed by Antoine Fuqua (so you know the film screams testosterone), although “Southpaw” is not a perfect film and, in fact, on more than one occasion harkens to deja vu moments of multiple “Rocky” films and every boxing cliche imaginable, it is high octane emotion on every level and bodes a performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that should garner him an Oscar nomination. (Note to Academy Members: Let’s not have another oversight of Jake this year!!) For that alone, “Southpaw” is a 15 round prize fight that keeps on punching and wins by decision!
Billy “The Great” Hope has clawed and pummeled his way from the foster care system in Hell’s Kitchen to become a light heavyweight boxing champ. Growing up in poverty and uncertainty, he appreciates the luxury and gifts that his boxing skills have now given him as an adult – loving wife Maureen, the oh-so-precocious-and-adorable daughter Leila, a nice home, fancy cars, money in the bank, and a chance to give back to the foster care system.
While Billy, and his manager Jordan Mains, want to keep on going at breakneck speed racking up the wins, titles and money, Maureen is the one who sees the handwriting on the wall. She sees the physical toll that Billy’s no-holds barred, street fighting style has taken on him; particularly, with his most recent fight. The body is bruised and battered, the left eye in jeopardy. Using the excuse of taking more time for the family rather than show any worry to Billy, Maureen puts the kibosh on a contract for a trio of bouts with a $30 million purse, much to Jordan’s dismay.
Still recovering from his latest fight, Billy and Maureen head out to a charity event only to be confronted by boxing rival Miguel Escobar who trash talks almost verbatim along the lines of Clubber Lang a la “Rocky 3″. Push comes to shove when the trash is about Maureen and then disaster happens, spiraling Billy into a pit of despair, anger, drugs and alcohol; costing him his daughter, his titles, his home, his money, his manager and his self-respect.
But, as with any great fighter, Billy knows what he must do. The bell hasn’t rung on the final round of life yet and he determines to get back custody of Leila and win back her love and respect. Turning to Tick Willis, former boxer turned gym owner and trainer for young kids to keep them off the streets, Billy is forced into menial labor cleaning toilets, mopping floors, needing to earn Tick’s respect before he can set foot into any ring. With nowhere to go but up, can Billy put aside his pride and learn there’s more to life than bloodsport, there’s discipline, technique and self-worth in, and out, of the ring.
Clearly influenced by Sylvester Stallone’s punch drunk performance in “Rocky 5″ with head injuries, slurring of words, “mentally irregular” thoughts, Jake Gyllenhaal blows the roof off the ring as Billy Hope. What a performance! If the Academy overlooks Jake yet again (Let’s face it. He deserved an Oscar nom for “”Nightcrawler”.), they should all be knocked out cold. Gyllenhaal once again transforms and embodies not only the physicality and appearance of his character, but the very essence. There is not a shred of evidence that Jake Gyllenhaal even exists in the man we see on screen. The voice and slurring of words is frightening. The continual spitting up of blood even after the fights, take the mind in various frightening directions. We feel the pain. We cringe at the pain. Where there’s Jake Gyllenhaal, there’s Hope!
Forest Whitaker’s Tick is the warm father figure that Billy never had. You love Whitaker from the start. He embraces that fatherly role not only in Tick’s relationship with Billy, but in the way he cares about all the kids in the gym. He gives guidance and purpose and protection. Kudos to scribe Kurt Sutter for drawing a beautiful metaphoric parallel between Billy and Leila. Where Tick knows it takes more than love to be a father, Billy doesn’t. Watching these two paths play out alongside each other just adds depth to the emotional transformation of Billy. Scenes between Whitaker and Gyllenhaal are touching and poignant.
Rachel McAdams digs deep and comes up a brilliant sparkling diamond as Maureen. Only other person I can even see tackling the tempered nuance and depth for the role would be Elizabeth Banks.
And then there’s Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. Perfectly cast. Jackson just keeps getting better with every film. As Jordan Mains he keeps you guessing; you suspect there’s more than meets the eye, especially with the way Mains harps on the $30 million contract he wants Billy to take that Maureen said no to. Jackson is rapier with an edgy angel/devil approach of facial and vocal intonations that makes you wonder if Jordan wasn’t part of the melee that resulted in the tragedy at the benefit. The very nature of the way Sutter wrote Jordan and the way Jackson plays him creates various scenarios as the film takes shape.
Nice little cameo from Victor Ortiz as sparring partner and man in Billy’s corner for the final fight. I really took a shine to Skylan Brooks as Hoppy, a young teen being mentored by Tick. A likeable eager kid. I wish his role had been more expanded and with greater significance to the overall plotline because as it is, it’s very disposable. And a very likeable and precocious performance comes from Oona Laurence. She’s a got a big career ahead of her. Quite honestly, I can’t wait to see her in “Pete’s Dragon”! But did they have to cast Jim Lampley as the ring announcer? *shaking head*
Beyond Gyllenhaal’s performance, “Southpaw” soars with its cinematography courtesy of Mauro Fiore. I am beyond thrilled and in awe of what Fiore and director Fuqua deliver in the boxing sequences, particularly the final bout in Vegas and the 11th and 12th rounds. Eye level Go-Pro in-your-face-shots are killer! Talk about immersing the audience in the heat of the moment! While I know that Fuqua was/is a boxer, I am curious as to the boxing trainer and choreographer in the mix. These bouts are as action packed and tension filled as an Ali-Frazier title match! Those two rounds alone left me breathless.
Love the desaturation of Tick’s gym, the gentle beauty of Leila’s bedroom, the bright white clarity of the Hope pool the morning after the fight – great visual metaphor for seeing things clearly, which is countered by the still fuzziness of Billy’s brain after the fight. Vegas is rich, saturated. Also noticeable is that as Billy’s training intensifies, more light filters into the scene akin to his mind is getting clearer. Lighting and lensing is outstanding, adding layers of story solely on the excellence of the cinematography.
Then there’s the script. My guess is that screenwriter Kurt Sutter is a big fan of the “Rocky” franchise as so much of “Southpaw” looks, sounds and feels as if lifted right out of specific scenes from “Rocky” 3, 4 and 5, and a little bit of the original. And not that there’s anything wrong with that. It provides great touchstones and cliches: Fighter at the top of his game; wife wants him out; tragedy strikes; fighter can’t recover; child suffers from neglect of boxing father. Character of Miguel Escobar is equivalent to Rocky’s Clubber Lang, even so far as to have the taunting dialogue about “being a real man, having a real man”. Tick Willis feels like a blend of “Rocky’s” Mickey and Apollo Creed. Comeback is in Vegas. Quiet, strong, fans behind him – just like Rocky in “Rocky Balboa.” And of course, the physical injury to Billy – the eye, the left eye, no less. Same eye Rocky had a problem with that was one of the reasons he couldn’t fight anymore. And then we have gifts of watches to assistants and associates and the watch becomes significant with the monetary losses. Ah, yes, being broke. Rocky lost everything in “Rocky 5″ thanks to Paulie’s giving away power of attorney and blindly signing contracts while Rocky was in USSR fighting; mansion, cars, auction. Lensing in “Southpaw” depicting the mansion foreclosure, repossession and auction appears virtually shot for shot from “Rocky 5″. Completing the comparison is the ultimate training montage complete with edits between Billy training and Miguel training. And for just one more similarity, when Rocky loses everything, he goes back to carrying buckets at Mickey’s gym, and here, Billy does the same for Tick. But yes, I am loving every second of the mirror similarities on every level.
Where Sutter steps out of the box with his own stamp is the amped up levels of violence and the unspoken unanswered “corruption” that Jackson oozes as Jordan and that Miguel Gomez brings to Miguel Escobar. However, I can’t help but feel that there is some footage on the cutting room floor that shows us a big reveal where Jordan may have bilked Billy out of his money and that it didn’t just “disappear” for expenses.
What I find interesting in Fuqua’s direction is the emotional drive and strength he focuses on with the camera; beating Billy down in an almost claustrophobic fashion as opposed to opening up the lens and letting the audience get an overview. We are in Billy’s mindset as he is broken down mentally and emotionally. I don’t think too many directors would have chosen to showcase the mental breakdown from such an internalized POV. But, this tact wouldn’t work with too many actors. If Gyllenhaal couldn’t deliver the intensity and anguish and pain, Fuqua’s storytelling POV would not have worked. This is a mark of true synergy between a director and his actor.
Derek Hill’s production design is first rate on every level – from rich to poor. And James Horner’s score… brooding, dark, haunting even in moments of emotional triumph, which only serves to add even more texture.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Kurt Sutter
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Victor Ortiz