I am starting to think that Jake Gyllenhaall is one of the best actors around. He does an amazing job of reinventing himself in any role that he plays and his more recent roles are a far cry from his Bubble Boy days. I didn’t watch Night Crawler until it came out of Netflix, but I did catch him in Prisoners, Source Code, End of Watch and a little known-film called Enemy. And his acting was great in each film! Naturally, I went to see Southpaw if for no other reason than to see Gyllenhaal work.
Antoine Fuqua is also a very solid director in my opinion and can be easily overlooked, but his attention to detail is what really stands out to me in his films. If his films do not perform well at the box office I tend to chalk that up more as a failure of the audience to notice his subtle directing style rather than blame Fuqua. I am one of the few advocates of the film The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, because unlike many I noticed a lot of details in the film that really made the main protagonist an extremely layered character. These subtly nuances were missed, however, by many critics who chalked the film up to be nothing more than an action film akin to Taken or John Wick. Or it could all just be in my head and I am giving Fuqua far too much credit. In either case, I was extremely excited to see Fuqua and Gyllenhaal pair up for this film!
The reigning junior middleweight boxing champion, Billy “The Great” Hope (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is seemingly at the top of his game. A kid originally from the streets, he has achieved fame, fortune and everything he wants in life. His life is rocked, however, when during an altercation with another boxer, his wife is accidentally shot and killed. This causes Billy to hit rock-bottom and he quickly begins to drink, do drugs and make extremely poor decisions which eventually lead to the loss of his riches and his beloved daughter.
Out on the streets, Billy finds hope (pun maybe a little intended?) in Tick Willis (played by Forest Whitaker), a former boxer and now amateur boxing trainer. Billy takes up work at Tick’s gym, eventually gaining the mans trust and respect. However, the courts still feel that Billy is too unstable to have a child and refuse to release his daughter from foster care, and to make matters worse, his daughter is slowly becoming bitter and angry at her father and never wants to see him. Billy eventually takes up boxing again, training with Tick harder than he has ever worked to change his boxing style, that of a mere kamikaze brawler-type, to somewhat more of a technical and efficient boxing type.
His training goes well and Billy is even invited to fight an up-and-coming amateur fighter in an exhibition. He impresses many in the audience, as well as his former manager/promoter (played by 50 Cent) and is offered a chance at a title fight against the boxer he had an altercation with at the beginning of the film. With little time to get in fighting shape and the odds stacked against him, Billy needs to pull out all the stops if he is going to reclaim the title and regain his former life and glory.
Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an amazing performance despite a lackluster story. Not to say that the story on paper is bad– it is just not all that original… It is the classic redemption story where a guy who has everything actually has a lot of cracks in his life and when something big comes along and exposes, said cracks, the main character loses everything and eventually has to change and grow if he is to get everything back. And, in Billy Hope’s case– the cracks reside in the issues of personality. He has a good heart– but he is stupid, he doesn’t think things through… he reacts to situations harshly and aggressively rather than thinking things through. This is how he fights, and unfortunately, this is also how he loses everything.
Gyllenhaal as Hope is almost unrecognizable. He is in amazing shape and there is no question to his dedication to the role. His on-screen personality IS Billy Hope– he pulls of white-trash gang-banger extremely well and, as far as pure acting props go, I would have to say this is one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date. You find yourself rooting for the character even though he does everything wrong in the film. You see him slowly fall apart but you see good in him and want him to succeed in the end.
The actual boxing was extremely well choreographed as well as shot and you get to be immersed into the matched more so than in other boxing films. The issue with many boxing/fighting films is that they either go for the standard HBO Boxing-look, where it looks like you’re watching the match at home or they try to make it look way to clean. The problem with the former is that you’re actively removed from the movie when they do this and you feel disconnected from the film as a whole. The problem with the latter is that it can often look to staged or fake and you are likewise removed from the film as things don’t seem quite right. A good example of the former would be the film Rocky Balboa and a good example of the latter would be the film Never Back Down (in regards to the final fight scene). This film actually captures a great combination of both of these style and you’re allowed to really feel like you’re ring side.
The fault of this film lies within its overuse of clichés– particularly clichés found all over the boxing genre or it is, at the very least, derivative? Hope loses everything because he hasn’t been managing his money well and when the fights stop rolling in his own, cars furniture and more all get reposed. He is forced to sacrifice his pride by working at a dump-of-a-gym where Tick has only one rule: He doesn’t train pro fighters….also no cussing. Both of which he does a terrible job of enforcing. Tick eventually trains him and teaches him to–you guessed it– actually have a defense! Because all great hollywood boxers go pro and never learn to defend themselves (Rocky…). Both of the main characters have a shot at redemption just when you think their careers are over. Even the rival boxer is essentially Mr. T but younger and more Mexican. And while I do like 50 Cent in this film, his character is the clichéd dirty fight promoter looking to take advantage of you. The movie is a combination of every classic boxing movie ever made and, while that does bring the movie down a little, it is not the worst offense in the world.
The biggest failure of the film is that they do not make the audience hate the antagonist enough. And who really is the antagonist? Is it 50 Cent Miguel Escobar (the rival boxer)? Sure, his crew is responsible for the death of Hope’s wife to some extent– and he did help in hiding the gun, and he does actively provoke Hope… but he doesn’t seem to be the worst guy ever. He just wants a chance at the title, and Hope’s crew seems to be actively avoided this fight. Meanwhile 50 Cent, his former fight promoter and friend, essentially abandons him during his time of need and even sets up the final fight so that Billy has almost zero time to train– hoping he will lose. You’re not invested enough in the final fight because you don’t hate the rival and the protagonist, though somewhat likable, has enough bad qualities that you find yourself not caring too much about the outcome.
Plot (out of 20)
There is nothing unique or overly intrigued about the plot. One of the greatest things about the original Rocky film, is that Rocky was an underdog with nothing but determination and heart. Southpaw is a redemption story that focuses too much on the fall of the protagonist while building to a lackluster redemption. Moreover the villain of the film is unclear and it fails to make the audience care. (5/20)
Characters (out of 20)
Most of the characters are archetypes of characters seen in many of the classic boxing films (like Rocky). You have the jaded antagonist who feels like he has been overlooked for his rightful shot at the title, the shady fight promoter who will steal your soul, the old-timey trainer with worlds of wisdom and the flawed protagonist that has to lose everything before he can make it back to the top. There is nothing new here except for the fact that they take these classic characters and give them a new-age “from the streets”-type thug feel… like Straight Outta Compton meets Rocky. (5/20)
Acting (out of 20)
While there are a lot of issues with this film, Gyllenhaal turns in a stellar performance and you have to respect anyone who is willing to get into that much shape for a role. His mannerisms, style of talking and everything about Hope are done extremely well. I do not LIKE the character, but that’s no fault of the acting… Billy Hope was acted perfectly but written poorly. And, while many of the other characters are clichéd, they are acted well and convincing throughout the film. (18/20)
Storytelling(out of 30)
I am torn here… on one hand, the story has been done so much it sort of ruins the film for me. On the other hand, the film was acted well and, particularly the demise of Billy Hope, you are convinced and bought into the world. Overall I think the film was given a great direction from an acting point of view– any tips Fuqua gave here definitely pay off. But Fuqua seems to lack his usual attention to detail when it comes to telling the story. (15/20)
Ad-Campaign(out of 10)
The trailers along with shorts and articles about how buff Gyllenhaal got for this film was enough to sell me on the film. Bravo there. (10/10)