"Southpaw" (2015)- Movie Review

Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Kurt Sutter
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker

‘A Powerful but Predictable Boxing Drama’

Is it just me or is the talented Jake Gyllenhaal not getting the recognition he deserves? Lately, this actor has been on a winning streak. From playing a man with a double identity in 2013’s “Enemy” to transforming into a creepy psychopath in last year’s “Nightcrawler”, he has constantly delivered top-notch performances with each film he has tackled. As a result, he has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented and reliable leading men.

Yet, for some odd reason which makes me scratch my head in confusion, this actor hasn’t received the awards-recognition that he has deserved for so long. Like a lonely child in a playground that nobody wants to hang out with, he has unjustly been ignored. With only one Academy Award nomination under his belt, that too a decade old, Jake Gyllenhaal is one of those actors who has long deserved a golden statue for his contributions to Cinema but has yet to win it.

After getting overlooked for his incredible transformation last year in “Nightcrawler”, the chances of Gyllenhaal winning an award any time soon seemed far-fetched. However, with his latest return to the big-screen in Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw”, that dream may be on it’s way to coming true. A predictable boxing drama that offers the kind of story we’ve seen many times before, “Southpaw” offers nothing new when it comes to originality. What makes it more than just your generic run-off-the-mill boxing film, however, is a powerhouse performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. This actor along with his co-stars approach a familiar subject with such commitment that they manage to make what could have been a boring boxing film exhilarating to watch. In a nutshell, the result is a film that’s worth watching for it’s powerful performances as long as you can put up with a predictable story.

If you are a die-hard fan of boxing films, the story in this case should be as easy to predict as the ABC’s. Which basically sums up the problem with most boxing movies nowadays: they lack a sense of surprise. By following a predictable plot, films in this genre have become frustrating to watch.  Even though “Southpaw” is as predictable as boxing movies go, thankfully it is not a nuisance to sit through.

For that, we have to thank Jake Gyllenhaal. Transforming both physically and emotionally, he goes through great lengths to play a fearless boxer named Billy Hope. A heavyweight champion, husband and father of a young child, Hope is living the life of his dreams at the start of the story. However, when an unexpected tragedy suddenly strikes, he loses the two people he cares the most about in the world: both his wife and daughter. Falling into depression seems like the only option available for Billy, until staging one last fight in the ring with the help of a trainer gives him the opportunity to turn his life around.

It’s doesn’t take rocket-science to guess where this ‘comeback’ story heads next, however, like most boxing movies “Southpaw” is more about the journey than the destination. In the hands of director Antoine Fuqua, that journey is so riveting to watch that by the time the formulaic ending arrives you almost forgive it. It’s a testament to how well the film is directed both from an action standpoint and a storytelling perspective. Given that Fuqua has a background in making action movies (ex. “Training Day”), it’s no surprise that the boxing scenes in the film are thrilling to watch. Visceral, gritty and highly realistic, they put you into the shoes of the boxers; almost making you feel as if you are with them in the ring. This feeling is brought out by Mario Fiore’s impressive cinematography, which lends the film an intense atmosphere and mood. Using a wide variety of shots, ranging from point-of-view to extreme close-ups, the cinematography makes the boxing scenes incredibly exciting to watch.

If boxing isn’t your cup of tea, however, there is still plenty to look forward to in “Southpaw” such an emotionally investing story. The most well-handled aspect of Antoine Fuqua’s film- even more impressive than the boxing sequences- is a deeply touching father-daughter story. More than a film that’s simply about boxing, “Southpaw” touches upon the struggles that boxers face when balancing professional life and family. They may be a champion in the ring, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be a winner in the minds of their family. This happens to be the case with Billy Hope, the protagonist of the film. He is an extraordinary boxer, but far from an extraordinary father. Billy’s relationship with his daughter, for example, goes from being warm and affectionate to broken by a tragic event. Not only does this relationship tug at the heartstrings, but it also gives you a reason to root for Billy Hope even when he’s far from a likable person.

Another aspect of “Southpaw” that is masterfully handled by director Antoine Fuqua is the acting. As far as performances go, this may be the most well-acted film I’ve seen in 2015 so far. Despite the formulaic plot, each actor brings an energy and enthusiasm to this movie that is simply hard to ignore.

Let’s start, first, with a young actress that took me by surprise: Oona Laurence. In the breakthrough role of her career, this actress delivers a performance so passionate and powerful that it sticks with you long after you leave the theater. Despite the fact that she is only 13 years old, Laurence manages to convey the emotions of a girl dealing with the loss of her parents. In a few scenes, she even steals the show from such big-name talents as Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a huge accomplishment and the sign of a star who has a bright future ahead of her in the industry.

You can never go wrong with an actor as talented as Forest Whitaker either. Using his larger-than-life presence and authoritative voice, Whitaker commands the screen as the inspiring trainer who helps the hero get his life back on track. It’s a stereotypical role, but the actor who has never disappointed once in his entire career makes the most out of it.

Ultimately, though, “Southpaw” unquestionably belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal. The success of the film rests on this star’s shoulders and my goodness does he deliver. Physically, mentally and emotionally committing himself to the role, Gyllenhaal gives a knockout performance that reminded me of Robert De Niro’s iconic turn in “Raging Bull”. It’s the performance of a lifetime that is fully deserving of awards-recognition.

Unfortunately, however, when you take these powerful actors out of the equation what we get is a rather familiar film that we’ve seen many times before. Although the actors do their best to elevate “Southpaw” beyond being a boxing movie, they cannot compensate for the film’s flaws. What brings this film crashing the ground is Kurt Sutter’s cliché-ridden script which is devoid of any surprises or originality. Following the beats and directions that every boxing film takes, the script is paint-by-the-numbers stuff. As mentioned earlier, if you’ve seen boxing movies you’ll be able to guess every direction in which this formula-driven film goes.

Also clumsily handled is the pacing, especially during the first-hour of the film. For the first-hour, almost nothing happens with the story dragging at a snail’s pace and it isn’t until an unexpected twist arrives that this problem is resolved.

If you are sensitive towards disturbing violence and tragedy, it may be challenging to sit through a film like “Southpaw” but in the end it’s worth it. While not a film for the faint of heart, this boxing-drama leaves a lasting impression through it’s emotional message and spellbinding performances. The story is familiar, granted, however, if nothing else it’s worth watching for Jake Gyllenhaal’s incredible acting. Hopefully, his performance will not be forgotten come awards season…

3.5/5 stars

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