‘Southpaw’ written by ‘Sons of Anarchy’ creator Kurt Sutter and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) is a dark boxing film. Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky’ set the benchmark and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ is quite simply the masterpiece of the genre. The story has been told many times. The scrappy underdog gets a shot at the title for redemption. It’s a variation of the American Dream that a man from humble beginnings can have an opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work. Sutter’s screenplay is a paint-by-the-numbers story that blends old-school melodrama with a gritty urban feel. What lifts it from mediocrity is Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerhouse physical transformation and performance.
It’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags story about a troubled New York orphan Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) that reaches the pinnacle of boxing success as the undefeated World Light Heavyweight boxing champ. He’s happily married to his childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams) who is the bedrock of their relationship. They have one daughter, the precocious Leila (Oona Laurence) who isn’t allowed to watch her father pummel the competition during his boxing matches. They live the American Dream in a mansion and own a fleet of luxury cars thanks to Billy’s boxing prowess. It’s a terrific supporting cast. Both McAdams and Laurence give heartfelt performances. It’s the love Billy has for his family that makes him human and more than just a ferocious destroyer in the ring.
The movie gets its title from the boxing style of Billy. As a southpaw, he uses a stance where he has his right foot forward and leads with right jabs before delivering a mean left hook punch. It’s a devastating blow that can lead to his opponent getting knocked out and seeing stars. There is a solemn opening when Billy is getting his fists wrapped before his championship bout. As Billy gets hit with graphic intensity, Maureen cheers him on from the audience. Fuqua perfectly shows how important his wife is in his life. She has been by his side since they were kids in a Hell’s Kitchen foster home. When Billy gets punched, blood flies everywhere. The boxing scenes are graphic and make the audience cringe from their realism. They are definitely hard to watch but it’s the family drama subplot that makes ‘Southpaw’ a dynamic boxing saga.
After the fight, Maureen warns him that he’ll be “punch-drunk in two years” if he doesn’t take a break from boxing. At a charity event, tragedy strikes and Billy’s world is turned upside down. It’s a cruel downward spiral that leaves him bankrupt and grieving. He loses everything that matters in his life. This is where his promoter 50 Cent knows that boxing is just business. “If it makes money, it makes sense,” he says to Billy convincing him to sign a 3-fight $30 million deal with HBO. The next fight goes horribly bad as Billy’s face is bloodied to a pulp. It finally looks like Billy has hit rock bottom and his boxing career is over. This leads Billy to return to the ghetto where he grew up to seek out the help of an old boxing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) that has demons of his own. The two slowly bond and Tick agrees to train him for an upcoming fight. This is where the story takes on a conventional path showing Billy training in the gym like his life depended on it. He learns valuable tips from Tick but most importantly how to defend himself from an opponent’s counterpunches.
The screenwriter Sutter never tries to reinvent the wheel. We’ve seen boxing films cover this ground many times. When it comes to directing, Fuqua is a master stylist. His films hit you with physical and emotional impact. There are moments when the film is touching with important relationships in Billy’s life. When he tries to reconnect with his daughter Leila or when he trains with Tick and says, “My wife would have liked you.” If it were just Billy trying to become champ again, the film would not work. It’s these important human connections like his daughter and trainer that make ‘Southpaw’ worth the price of admission. Gyllenhaal is compelling and he could be a contender for an Oscar nomination during award season once again. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/lkuoF3CRxf8.