"Southpaw" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
Many boxing films follow the same plot structure. There is a boxer protagonist who is challenged by the champion, and the movie ends with the main character winning in a huge epic battle, or losing but receiving the respect of the foe they went against. Antoine Fuqua's "Southpaw" follows that same structure in a way, yet adds in a strong force of raw gritty emotion that is rarely found in many other boxing films. "Southpaw" isn't just a great boxing film, but a great study of one's character when they lost it all, accompanied by a fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is already a certified boxing legend at a younger age than most legends in this sport, going undefeated in over forty boxing matches. The most important thing to him besides boxing is his family, consisting of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and his young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). He does a lot of charity work for the foster care system, which both him and his wife grew up in, in hopes for making the system a better place for children. At one of these galas for the system, there is an altercation between him and future competitor Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), which leads to his wife being accidentally shot and killed.
Billy feels like he has lost everything, and starts down a very violent path of destruction. Because of this, he has Leila taken away from him, mirroring his own childhood in the system. Now homeless, jobless, and everything he ever cared about taken from him, Billy must find a way to pick up the pieces and start new.
Gyllenhaal is absolutely fantastic in this movie. It is amazing how different he can become for these roles, and this performance as Billy is so different compared to any of his other performances throughout his career. He shows so much strong, raw emotion and strength throughout this movie, and he performs with so much energy in every scene. It's obvious he has given it his 110%, which I'm positive he does in every movie he stars in.
At the same time, Laurence gives a terrific breakout performance, showing how she is a force to be reckon with in this industry. She gives it her all whenever she is present in the film, and it's amazing what she was able to do at such a young age. She was able to perform and give such raw emotion that actors many years older than her haven't even been able to master yet. Consider the scene towards the middle of the film where Billy goes to visit his daughter. She explodes knowing she has to wait another month to get out of there, slapping her father multiple times and yelling that she hates him. It is so powerful and heartbreaking to watch this unfold, accompanied by the terrific, heartbreaking performances from both Gyllenhaal and Laurence in this scene.
The movie moves at a great pace, able to show how the characters are able to move past tragedy and build their lives back up again. When he is down-on-his-luck, Billy finds Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), an older boxer who is blind in one of his eyes. He starts to train other young boxers, trying to help those on the streets become men and survive in the hood of Los Angeles. He takes Billy under his wing, promises to help him get back to where he was in the sport and get his daughter back. Whitaker gives a great performance alongside Gyllenhaal, remaining me quite a bit of Morgan Freeman's role in "Million Dollar Baby".
I think what makes this movie so moving and great is that it incorporates various elements that other boxing films have shied away from. Sure, we have Apollo Creed's death in "Rocky" and the hateful family in "Million Dollar Baby", but this movie really shows what tragedy can do to one person, and how it affects everyone around them. This film does an excellent job of showing that and showing how it is possible for people to move past it and start their lives anew.
The best thing about this movie is Gyllenhaal's performance, and he is able to elevate this script beyond what it possibly could have been. He makes this a great boxing film, and also demonstrates how these athletes can go through the same thing as everyone else. When Billy gets in the ring again towards the end of the film, he is not just fighting for the championship, he is fighting his personal demons head-on, not avoiding it. Billy puts up a good fight, just as this movie does throughout its entire runtime.