Powered by a raw, riveting performance by Jake Gyllenhaal that’s almost a sure-fire bet to nab him a Best Actor Oscar nom, director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day) puts a stellar spin on the classic boxing film with his work in Southpaw, setting a new standard for how a boxing film should look, sound, and feel. Working from a strong script by “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, Fuqua’s film grabs your attention from the outset with its unflinching, visceral depiction of the sport and of a fighter who’s found success using anger and ferocity alone, then holds that attention and pulls you further in when that fighter suddenly and brutally finds himself against setbacks and losses that anger will not help him combat. That fighter’s slow and painful journey back, his education in terms of learning a new way to fight, mirrors his learning a new way to live, and seeing the culmination of those efforts in the ring as Fuqua directs it delivers a sense of satisfaction that has few rivals in theaters this year so far.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy “The Great” Hope, who sits atop the boxing world with an undefeated record and holding all four major international light heavyweight boxing titles thanks to his bruising, all-aggressive offense style of fighting. Since his childhood days raised in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and his escape from that life thanks to boxing, Billy’s always believed that the harder he gets hit, the angrier and stronger he gets, and with all his success and all the wealth and comfort he’s been able to obtain for his family and friends, he sees no reason to change.
But his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who came from that same orphanage and thus understands Billy and boxing thanks to many years spent around both, knows different. She knows at the rate Billy’s going and the number of hits to the head he allows himself to take in his fights there won’t be much left of him mentally in just a few short years, certainly not enough to help her raise their young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). She wants Billy to take a long break, but there’s pressure from Billy’s promoter Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) to keep fighting and keep all that money coming in to support their lavish lifestyle.
But whatever direction Billy’s life and career might have taken from that point is abruptly derailed by a tragic accident due in part to his own inability to control his emotions, and suddenly the fighter who’s never lost finds himself facing the prospect of losing everything he’s worked for. He responds to that prospect the only way he knows how — with blind rage — which does nothing but make things worse until he literally has nothing left to lose.
Without a home, without his family due to his own actions, Billy looks once again to boxing, as that Hell’s Kitchen orphan once did, to do the one thing he knows how to do in order to somehow fight his way out of the hole he’s dug. He seeks out the help of Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a one-time trainer of pro fighters who now owns a gym and works exclusively with kids as a boxing instructor while dealing with his own personal demons. Tick sees clear as day that Billy has no real plan, no real sense of how to turn things around, and initially wants no part of the broken fighter’s troubles. He does take him on as an employee, though, and in seeing the one-time prideful champion quietly and devotedly working with street kids in that rundown neighborhood gym, he at last sees a man he can work with, someone who can be trained to fight smart while fighting hard.
When the chance for a miraculous return to the top falls in Billy’s lap, it’s Tick that he turns to for the guidance he’ll need to in order to win. Knowing that the stakes are much more than just championship belts and money, they continue the task of reinventing Billy as a fighter, all the while knowing that at the moment of reckoning he’ll have to climb into the ring alone and put his commitment to everything he’s learned and all that he loves to the ultimate test.
From the very first moments of Southpaw, what will most likely stand out glaringly to audiences is the physical transformation of Gyllenhaal, who has truly done nothing even remotely like this thus far in his film career. But what’s even more incredible is the transformation is not static — the actor didn’t get his body ripped and cut simply to look good moving around the ring in trunks on screen. In the course of the film audiences witness Billy’s transformation as a fighter from bruiser to boxer and tactician; that change is not only a mental one, but a profound physical one, and Gyllenhaal committed performance makes the change believable and inspiring. The change of tactics in the ring, of course, mirrors his change of tactics in his approach to getting his family life in order, and the actor excels in these scenes as well, though tremendous credit is also due to 12-year-old Oona Laurence, whose portrayal of Leila is so thoroughly engrossing that its easy to forget you’re watching an actress playing a role. She matches Gyllenhaal’s intensity in their scenes together without a single false note in her expression or delivery, which is no mean feat considering the range of emotion she’s called upon to deliver, and her efforts help make Gyllenhaal’s work all the more compelling and at times heartbreaking.
Of course, they, as well as the rest of the members of the ensemble, are all working off of a script by Kurt Sutter, who has built a reputation for storytelling characterized by charismatic yet deeply flawed characters and the raw, emotionally brutal situations their flaws invariably lead them to. As he’s done in his previous television work, Sutter creates nuanced, complicated characters for Southpaw and puts those characters through the ringer in every possible meaningful way, letting those characters, particularly Billy, drive the direction of the film’s story and determine its tone. Billy is the product of a hard upbringing and a hard sport, thus the tone of the film, even in its brightest moments, is always grounded and governed by harsh realities. “Shield” and “SoA” fans take note: this is a film you simply must see — it may not have Michael Chiklis or Charlie Hunnam in it, but it’s a Sutter story through and through.
Finally, Fuqua deserves tremendous credit as well for once again envisioning and bringing to fruition on screen a boxing film that looks and feels as authentic as Southpaw does. The Rocky films of the past forty years have for the most part created within our cultural imagination a certain cartoonish expectation of what boxing films are, an expectation that in recent years even Sylvester Stallone has worked hard to overcome when he’s brought to the screen latter day Rocky Balboa stories. If anything, Southpaw has much more in common with Stallone’s original 1976 Rocky film and his much more recent Rocky Balboa in terms of the choice of grounded grit and devotion to character drama over theatrics in the ring to entertain audiences.
But Fuqua’s work surpasses even that classic film in terms of its intensity and attention to the authentic experience of training for and being in the center of that ring — when his visuals are paired with a musical score composed by the late, great James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart) that deftly navigates the film’s emotional roller coaster and in the end uplifts and crescendos without over-the-top bombast, it creates a film experience whose audience appeal should easily transcend just those who enjoy boxing movies. Southpaw is a powerhouse film in every sense of the word, and it must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, and Rachel McAdams. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Running Time: 123 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, and some violence.