There are certain films that have come to define the genre which chronicles what is known as ‘the noble art’: Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Rocky and The Fighter stand as world champions of this genre and all new-comers will be measured against them. It is unfortunate that all new additions to the genre must be compared to these time-tested titans, but they have set the expectations that all boxing films must rise to. Southpaw suffers from these expectations, thus being remembered as a good film but not a great boxing film.
Named after the unorthodox, left-handed style of boxing, Southpaw is a classic redemption tale following the fall and renewal of boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal). Billy Hope is a successful yet aging world champion. Billy’s life outside the ring is kept stable by the presence of his loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), the brains to his brawn. However, Billy’s life is soon thrown into chaos when Maureen is killed during an altercation with another boxer. His descent from glory sees him lose his championship, his manager (50 Cent), his house, his friends and most importantly his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Spurred on to redeem himself, Billy seeks the help of the wise trainer Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him regain his title and the love of his daughter.
Southpaw seems to pay more attention to telling its heartfelt story outside of the ring. The fight scenes are built up well but are anti-climactic; shot with intensity and a perfect pace, fuelling rushes of adrenaline, they fail to capture the sheer brutality of boxing that greats like Raging Bull do. However, what the film lacks in visceral action is more than made up for by the way it chronicles Billy’s descent into self-destruction and the relationship between Billy and Leila from a father protecting his daughter to a daughter protecting her father. Indeed, Leila’s development is more apparent, turning from a sweet little girl into a hardened astute teenager who has disregarded her glasses because they’re “not cool”. However the film suffers from clichéd predictability and although there are moments that will tug at your heartstrings, there is nothing that will put you on the edge of your seat.
The performances range from exceptional to disappointing. Gyllenhaal gives his latest in a string of sterling performances as the self-destructive boxer; transforming from a lean voyeur in Nightcrawler to a hulking mass of rippling muscle in Southpaw, he delivers a performance of incredible pathos and disgust in equal measure. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams gives a surprise performance as Maureen. Her transition from ‘polished’ roles to one which is undeniably gritty and dripping with sex appeal, and the way she matches Gyllenhaal’s intensity, makes her short-lived performance a highlight. Whilst 50 Cent is passable as Hope’s Shylock-esque manager, gleefully taking his pound of flesh with golden-plated fingers when Billy is a champion yet is quick to abandon him, Forest Whitaker failed to live up to his capabilities of trainer Tick Wills whose wisdom was lost in gravelly tones; the character lacked the depth he deserved resulting in a hollow performance.
Overall, Southpaw is entirely predictable but with a good heart and filled with many touching moments, making it a good film. However, these moments steal the limelight from the boxing narrative which comes across as neglected. Though this is not a bad thing, don’t expect a new champion in the boxing genre because you may be left slightly disappointed.
What did you think of Southpaw?
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– Tom Russell