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Southpaw is the latest movie to join the boxing movie subgenre, a movie with a great cast, but weighed down by moments of melodrama and clichéd dialogue.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light-heavyweight champion of the world, a boxer at the top of his game. He is wealthy beyond belief, has a loving wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter, Lelila (Oona Laurence) and set to make a big deal with HBO. But Billy’s life falls apart when his wife is shot. He falls into a deep depression, resulting in his wealth disappearing and his daughter getting taken away from him. Billy has to rebuild his life so he get his daughter back and return to the ring, receiving help from an old trainer (Forest Whittaker).
When it comes to sports movies, boxing has offered some of the best, Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man and The Fighter being examples. Boxing is an individual sport and has a focus on one character/a small group and their personal struggles, it is a intense sport making it more visually dynamic on film and it is seen as a working class sport, servicing a perfect backdrop for a rag-to-riches story. Southpaw covers all these bases, even being a riches-to-rags-to-riches story like Rocky V was, with Billy having to return to his Hell’s Kitchen roots, working from the bottom to regain his life and reconnect with his daughter (in Rocky’s case his son), avoiding the children having the same upbringing their parents had. Other elements from other boxing movies are the intense rivalry between the main boxers like Rocky III and Rocky IV, the family drama that is prevalent in these movies and themes about the commercialization of the sport compared to the simplistic surroundings of boxers and trainers on limited resources.
Southpaw has a great cast with Gyllenhaal getting into shape for the role: he is seriously ripped and bulked up and is very convincing in the boxing sequences. A departure from his role in Nightcrawler where he lost weight and played a ruthless, weasely character. In Southpaw, Gyllenhaal brings out his inner Brando and De Niro, mumbling his lines and flies into fits of rage at a given moment. Gyllenhaal is given range as he plays the hot-headed fighter who seems to be suffering health problems due to his profession, his severe grief and hitting rock-bottom. His performance was compelling.
Forest Whittaker was entertaining as Billy’s new trainer, injecting a sarcastic wit and sells some of the more clichéd dialogue he was given. McAdams too was strong as Billy’s wife and being the rock and brains of the pair, thinking about the long term issues. Even 50 Cent who has a notorious reputation for crimes against acting is passable in his supporting role. But Naomie Harris was given a thankless role that anyone could have played.
For any boxing movie, the fighting is one of the key selling points. The early fights have the look of a television prize fight, very polished. There are close ups and shaky cam shots, but this is a rare occurrence, instead where these techniques happen they add to the frantic nature of the fight and do not hide bad fight choreography. Early fights start with Billy getting punched in the face and the force is felt due to framing and Gyllenhaal’s acting. His style of fighting involves taking a lot of punishment before fighting back. He ultimately has to learn a new style of boxing.
Where Southpaw falters is in the family drama aspect and this is due to the screenplay by Kurt Sutter. It is a standard, unoriginal affair that has nothing new to say. Sutter and director Antonie Fuqua fall back onto melodrama to try and get emotional impact and pull every cord possible. There are marital arguments, deaths, overwrought grief and alcohol abuse, families being torn apart and a 10-year-old girl rejecting her father. This is just manipulative as it tries to force an emotional reaction from the audience, instead of allowing the story to do that in its own right. The actors do their best with the material, but they are hampered by the clunky plot developments and unoriginal dialogue.
A special note should be given to the late James Horner who composed the score. It was the last score he recorded (although his last full score will be in The 33 later this year). It is decent if unremarkable music and nowhere near the heights of his famous scores for Braveheart and Titanic. It is during the final the fight where the music truly shines as percussion instruments are used and are fitting for the brawl: it is the best piece of music in the movie. Southpaw also uses plenty of hip-hop, particularly Eminem who was considered for the lead role before Gyllenhaal got it.
Southpaw is blessed with a great cast who are perfectly game for the movie, but it brings nothing new to the boxing subgenre and is not as a compelling a drama as it wants to be. The boxing fights still deliver and Fuqua found a way for 50 Cent to work to his strengths.