‘Believe in Hope’
The boxing film sub genre is home to some heavyweights. Stuff like ‘Rocky’ & ‘Raging Bull’ have went down as some of the most memorable of all time thanks to inspired direction, emotional performances and punishing fight scenes. Their success makes it very difficult for any future boxing film to make their mark. The success of any film, just like an elite boxer is dependent on putting it all together, having each facet of your game working in tandem and doing something spectacular. ‘Southpaw’ unfortunately will only go down as a contender, not a champion, despite some gratifying wins in acting & fights, it ultimately stumbles to one of films biggest challenges…story.
‘Southpaw’ follows the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), an undefeated light heavyweight champion with a troubled childhood. With a new up & coming boxer making waves and causing some controversy in order to gain a fight with Billy, things take a dramatic turn as Billy suffers a tragic family loss which lays his life in tatters. Billy struggles to cope, his daughter is forced to live in temporary state care and he is on the verge of bankruptcy. In an effort to get his life back on track and get his daughter back he seeks the help of veteran trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) as nearly everyone else previously in his corner have abandoned him. With a renewed sense of purpose and direction Billy looks to get back on top of the heap and prove he is a champion, and a father.
Let us get this out the way first, Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in this film, sure his physical transformation for the role is impressive but the guys acting is just great. After a few big budget busts (of which none were his fault) he has delivered consistent impressive performances, from ‘Prisoners’ to ‘Nightcrawler’ someday soon I see Jake bagging an Oscar. However there is a heavyweight performance that I feel breaks out from the shadow of the hulking physique of Jake Gyllenhaal, and that is the performance of Oona Laurence as Billy’s daughter Leila. In a film full of testosterone and fighting, her delicate performance as a young girl who physically looses one parent and emotionally looses the other is powerful.
What is not so fantastic about this film is the arc of the story, it is just the same bland repetitive stuff that gets churned out all of the time. Arcs like this can be glossed over by surprising events or exceedingly good development, unfortunately and disappointingly ‘Southpaw’ has neither. Some of this can be put down to the spoiler laden trailers, the rest lies with the script. Frustratingly what punctuates this is the story tantalisingly skirts around the edges of some of the more interesting, untapped topics in boxing. Corruption, behind the scenes boxing politics and health damage are just some of the points that are simply barely referenced, and these are topics that are absolutely ready to be tackled. Anybody who follows boxing knows behind the bright spotlight it’s a gnarly, dark and corrupt world and that is one worth exploring.
There is a little credit the story deserves and that lies with a decent middle act focus on Billy loosing custody of his daughter and then fighting to get her back. It’s a topic you’re more likely to find in an independent drama as opposed to boxing spectacle, and it is a very refreshing choice of direction. Despite being a boxing film, the choices to only feature a couple of boxing fights which are mainly at the start and end of the film is another shrewd and wise choice. Though everyone loves to watch a good scrap, spacing the fights apart keeps them feeling like grand events, admittedly though the build up to the climax fight feels strangely rushed. One minute Billy is suspended and fighting for a charity event, not long later he is fighting for the title again…there is corruption in boxing but even that would raise eyebrows.
Overall ‘Southpaw’ is a good but flawed film. It doesn’t quite deliver on all it’s punches but some of them do hit flush. The acting is terrific and the direction is pretty solid too but the story certainly needs refined and we need to see something other than the now generic story arc the film takes. Despite this, boxing fans are sure to enjoy it and it certainly reaches out to casual film fans who will want to see something different to an avenger flying across the screen. I’d recommend watching it to anybody, but it’s not quite the awards season contender some expected it to be.