Boxing films of distinction have a long and illustrious history. Think Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, The Boxer, Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, to name but a few.
First up then, a technical explanation. Southpaw, in boxing parlance, for those not associated with the sport, is the regular stance for a left-handed boxer. He or she has his or her right hand and right foot forward and leads with right jabs. Now from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), comes the story of Billy “The Great” Hope.
Hope, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in spectacular physical shape, is the reigning light heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He seemingly has it all – a sustained and impressive career, a beautiful and loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), an adorable young daughter (Oona Laurence) and a lavish lifestyle. He and Maureen have left behind a harsh upbringing to make good, but then tragedy strikes. Ditched by his lifelong manager and friend Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Hope becomes a shell of a man and hits rock bottom. It is then that he turns to an unlikely savior, a retired fighter and trainer to the city’s toughest amateur boxers, at a run-down local gym. His name is Tick Willis, a role filled by Forest Whitaker, and he is a no nonsense kind of guy. It is with Willis that Hope enters the hardest battle of his life as he struggles with redemption and to win back the trust of those he loves.
A love of boxing was certainly not what drove Gyllenhaal to star in Southpaw. In fact, Gyllenhaal was essentially unfamiliar with the sport before signing on, though he now calls himself an avid fan. For him, director Antoine Fuqua, who’s a dedicated boxer and trains every day, was the main reason for his interest in the film. Determined not to make Southpaw “just another boxing movie,” Fuqua was determined to find an actor willing to take on the role in the most literal, brutal way conceivable. So, no doubles, very few effects, little reliance on editing, just straight training and as faithful a replication of the boxing world as possible, right down to the camerawork.
Given Gyllenhaal’s intensive immersion into the role of Billy, it may surprise some to learn that the film was originally intended for a very different performer: hip hop artist Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem. Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, whose father was at one time a semi-professional fighter, was first approached by the rapper’s team three years ago to potentially remake the 1979 boxing classic The Champ. But Sutter disagreed with the idea of simply doing a reboot of an old film. Instead, he wanted to tell Eminem’s story through the analogy of boxing. Serving as inspiration for character Billy Hope’s downward spiral was Eminem’s own real-life struggle with the death of his best friend, Proof. And his close relationship with his daughter Hailie Jade was another a key piece in informing the movie’s other crucial theme, fatherhood. When the musician dropped out of the project at the last minute to instead focus on an album, Sutter and Fuqua went back to the drawing board and, ultimately, won the interest of Gyllenhaal. But Eminem remains connected to the film – his single “Phenomenal” is the first song on the movie’s official soundtrack, for which he also serves as executive producer.
Together with Sutter, Fuqua and Gyllenhaal were determined to craft a picture that was both a realistic ode to the sport and a complex but relatable tale of familial and personal hardship. What they have come up with is, indeed, involving and compelling, to a point.
Gyllenhaal has displayed his fine acting credentials many times before and, here again he is mighty impressive, while you’d be hard pressed to find a more charming and engaging partner than McAdams. The build up is impressive and when calamity strikes, we, the audience, are ill-prepared for the manner in which it comes. It hits and hits hard, if you pardon the pun. So, that is great. Thereafter though, as strong as the narrative was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it played out as I would have expected. In other words, no longer was there the element of surprise that the initial shock gave us.
Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely well acted and shot and choreographed, but it gave me much of what I anticipated, in other words it signaled its punches, if you can excuse a second pun. Yes, I have seen an enormous number of great boxing movies and for those who haven’t it will probably have greater impact. Nevertheless, I still shed a few tears and was rooting for the underdog, just as I should have.
Rated MA, Southpaw is good, not great and scores a 7 to 7½ out of 10.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Naomi Harris and Forest Whitaker
Release Date: 20 August 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television