In the ring, a certain Billy “The Great” Hope aspires to be this generation’s Rocky by entering the dark place that swallowed LaMotta. From the stands, we see a fighter who, under the direction of Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, displays no personal signature despite the most admirable level of commitment.
An upgrade from the scrawny, disturbed and profit predator seen in last year’s riveting Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal is now a muscular, affluent and crazed beast known as the “Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.” Billy Hope has owned everything already – a Mercedes and a Maserati, a mansion, a supportive daughter (Oona Laurence) and a gorgeous wife who has the ability to diffuse his temper (Rachel McAdams). Unfortunately, it’s that explosive behavior that costs the man his wife after an altercation with a rival (Miguel Gomez) and, piece by piece, his life. The path to redemption begins…
Sports dramas can’t escape their formulaic path of breaking-down-then-standing-up; they are designed to make sure one feels good in the end. As a result, screenwriters Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and Richard Wenk (The Mechanic) see no need to step out of what has come before. “Tried and true,” as the saying goes, but both writers also introduce elements too trying and as an overall experience Southpaw feels inauthentic. Expected motions are one thing – the death of someone that matters, estranged daughter, new mentor, training sessions are philosophical lessons, the montage, the rebound and the win – but careful when going the distance with an attempted suicide, a dramatic courtroom father-daughter split and a conflict at the child services center. Not only there’s a heavy suggestion that a list with every cliché of sports dramas and personal dramas might have been within arm’s reach at all times, Sutter and Wenk, for better or worse, focus only on Hope and in turn churn out underwhelming subplots, equally so resolution for supporting players, there-then-gone female characters and this one-note villain… of sorts.
Southpaw, then, bets close to everything on its execution. With a material more down-to-earth and has palpable grittiness than Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua makes himself as the perfect helmer. He brings out all the power his performers – despite their stay is brief like Laurence and especially McAdams, or otherwise à la Whitaker and Gyllenhaal, or even when it’s Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. For the first time ever, the 34-year old actor renders himself – or gets rendered by Fuqua – as the reason to buy a ticket, displaying a complete transformation in terms of physique and mannerisms to live the character. Gyllenhaal convinces us he might have shared or currently shares Hope’s characteristics in real life, and not the “going into overdrive” kind to bait awards… though admittedly it’s about time they hand one for the actor.
As a boxer himself, Fuqua knows how to inject thrill into the film’s fighting sequences. Save for the last match’s final blow, every punch Hope and his rival throw is painful, flinch-inducing and has nothing but force. The jittery camerawork from Mauro Fiore (Avatar) and frenzied editing from the director’s regular John Refoua all cooperate to bring forth this unprecedented rawness, which sometimes gets accentuated in the overly brief first-person perspective moments. Do note Fiore’s use of vibrant colors in Southpaw’s matches: much like his previous lensing effort, the also boxing-centric Real Steel, it highlights the unnerving nature of the sport in which the more pain one deals the more entertainment value being conjured up.
Countering all the aggression is the late composer James Horner’s music with tender piano notes that suitably prepare viewers for the booming drums and verses of “Phenomenal” or “Kings Never Die,” the latter featuring Gwen Stefani. Similar to the arrangement of these two bound-to-be-hit tunes from Eminem, Southpaw holds back no punches in its directing and casting, and it also holds nothing but familiarity either.