Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” a boxer who holds a title belt and is undefeated. Hope is a fighter that isn’t afraid to get bloody and he often takes a beating in the ring. With his undefeated record, Hope has experienced a great adult life, however, after a tragedy happens, he is sent into a downward spiral.
To get his life back on track, Hope relies on the help of trainer Tick Wills (Whitaker), not just to improve as an athlete, but as a person.
It’s easy to look at “Southpaw” and point out the simple cliches that populate its story. The film has tropes like the wise old trainer, an athlete who has to rise to the occasion as an underdog and a training montage to boot. The fact is, though, that even with cliches, a movie can work if the rest of the execution is good, and in “Southpaw” it’s completely solid.
Director Antoine Fuqua and Writer Kurt Sutter were able to develop a bleak, disheartening story with a gritty, urban environment which fit perfectly for what they were trying to pull off with “Southpaw.” At it’s core, the film is really more than just a sports movie. It’s about a person trying to mentally heal as a father and as a person.
This all leads to a compelling climax that isn’t fueled by revenge or a chance to win a championship. It’s simply the final treatment for a recovering character.
Gyllenhaal headlines “Southpaw” as Hope and he completely immerses himself in the role, transforming into a championship boxer on a physical level and displaying the true pain of a person who is losing everything on a mental level. From beginning to end, Gyllenhaal gives a performance that honestly portrays a man hitting rock bottom and trying to stand up again.
Along with Gyllenhaal, Whitaker also brings a great performance as the trainer Tick Wills. What works for Whitaker’s character is that he’s a man who doesn’t have all the answers. He’s not perfect and can’t solve all of Hope’s problems, but what he can do is point him in a better direction. This brings a solid level of humanity to these characters and the two build a believable friendship in the film.
Oona Laurence, who played Hope’s daughter Leila, also gave a strong, heartfelt performance added depth to the study of the main character.
Weakening the film a bit were the film’s more villainous characters. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays the typical ‘money is everything’ boxing promoter and Miguel Gomez seemed to channel Mr. T’s Clubber Lang from “Rocky III.” Both performances had their moments, but the characters were a bit too generic without having any of the depth that the other ones in the movie had.
Credit is definitely due to Fuqua for creating very realistic boxing matches, which are filmed in a way that show very technical styles of fighting. Despite not being all focused on athletics, this movie still has a sports element and when that element is brought to the screen, it looks about as good as it can get.
Despite following a path with some cliches, there’s no doubt that “Southpaw” has a lot of strengths at its disposal. The story displays a person’s healing process well, it has good characters with moving performances and its action scenes deliver like they should. Even with its flaws, “Southpaw” still hits its mark. 4 out of 5.