The boxing film is one especially prone to tropes. There's the training montage, the early morning jog through downtown, the title fight, and the battle raging within oneself. More often than not, the boxing film is one about redemption, when a prized fighter loses everything, only to claw their way back to the top and have the arc come full-circle. It's rags to riches - and sometimes, back to rags again.
Southpaw is no deviation from the mean. The Antoine Fuqua-directed film is one filled with absolute dread and despair, as the lavish empire of light heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) collapses around him. But Southpaw makes it quickly apparent that this is a tale of redemption, and although we all know how the movie will end, we don’t quite know how we’ll get there. This is where watching the volatile Hope deal with his struggles becomes intriguing - and, by extension, the transformative performance put on by Gyllenhaal.
Coming from playing a psychopathic, wide-eyed, and wiry-bodied videojournalist in last year's Nightcrawler, the chameleon-like actor underwent a grueling training regimen to put on fifteen pounds of muscle for Southpaw's head role. With a heavy dose of skillful method acting, Gyllenhaal assumes the identity of a fiery pugilist who finds strength in getting pummeled. Defense, in his world, does not exist. And fighting seems to be the only area of Hope's expertise, as he otherwise fumbles his words and even struggles with spelling. It's truly the opposite of his sharp-witted character from Nightcrawler.
So convincing is Gyllenhaal that one could mistake Southpaw for some kind of cinematic documentary. It’s that realistic. So when dearly beloved wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is killed by a stray bullet during a public scuffle by would-be challenger Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), his pain is severe and immediate. The editing is frenetic, the score chilling, the life ebbing away in Maureen’s eyes painfully apparent – the universe of Southpaw bends to the will of Gyllenhaal’s acting prowess. This is not necessarily a film about a boxer, but of the world seen through his eyes and filtered through his mind. If Gyllnehaal can keep up this high-caliber acting for an entire career, he'll rival the likes of Daniel Day Lewis.
There’s no saving graces for Hope. Maureen was the one who made every decision in his life and career, and her death is the worst possible thing that could have happened to him. Now, every decision he makes is a terrible one. He punches a referee after losing a fight, slamming Hope with multiple lawsuits. Issues with drugs and an attempted suicide causes Hope to lose custody of his young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), further sending him spiraling downward. Now residing in a run-down apartment and left taking a job at a boxing gym under washed-up trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), he must build himself all the way back up.
Hope's rise back to the top under the guidance of Willis is where the conventions of the boxing film really show themselves. The training montages, of course, are mandatory. Hope's internal struggles are equally as great as his external ones. Everything seen from here on is a buildup to the final fight, the final round, the climax in the ring on HBO. For all we witness in Gyllenhaal’s performance - it's the examination of an unstable psyche after literally losing everything - Southpaw doesn’t lend itself to surprises or originality. And because of this, the ending can be seen from miles away, doing us no favors - even if the movie is helmed by one of the best actors working in Hollywood today.
But despite Gyllenhaal soaking up the spotlight, Southpaw is notable for its other good performances, especially from the Oscar-winner Whitaker, why plays the role of mentor exceptionally well. Although her screen time is short, McAdams leaves enough of an impression on the audience that not only Hope is the one missing her when she dies. Even Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, playing Hope's agent, brings it home enough to immerse us in the fighter's big-time dealings. But again, it's Maureen who makes the calls.
A dark, brooding score by the late James Horner (the movie is dedicated to his memory) compliments the despair of Hope, and energetic bursts of hip hop give Southpaw its proverbial punches. Even a couple of songs were originally written and performed by Eminem specifically for the film's soundtrack, and his in-your-face style is the perfect compliment to Hope's training sequences.
Speaking of which, it's interesting to note that Eminem was originally attached to play Billy Hope; the casting almost makes perfect sense. Although it's easily to imagine the rapper throwing on boxing gloves, it's difficult to say if he could have done it better than Gyllenhaal.
But again, for all of its assets, Southpaw is a slave to the conventions of its genre. Its highly telegraphed ending almost feels like a missed opportunity; a chance to complete the exploration of the movie's very dark themes. Southpaw is a tragedy that somehow closes with a happy ending, and there's no irony in Hope's name. What could have been a groundbreaking tragedy in the vein of the masterpiece Raging Bull instead ends up like a darker version of a Rocky sequel.
Written by Kurt Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forest Whitaker.