Last year, Jake Gyllenhaal delivered a truly remarkable performance as the skeletal journalist Lou Bloom in the phenomenal Nightcrawler. This year, he has bulked up to play boxer Billy Hope in Antoine Fuqua's boxing drama Southpaw. But is this just another Rocky wannabe or is it the king of kings?
It certainly takes some inspiration from Rocky, but it does from most boxing films. There's a sense of déja-vu with the way Southpaw plays out. It's no outstandingly atypical film for this genre; quite the opposite, sticking to a typical boxing drama formula. It's not a ground-breaking film for its ambition or audacity to try something new, since it doesn't. However, it is still a ground-breaking film. Despite the familiarity, this is boxing drama that packs a real punch. It takes the known method route and follows genre trademarks but it does it well, extremely well for that matter.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the undefeated, 4th time, light heavyweight champion of the world. With the unfairly gorgeous wife (Rachel McAdams), the sweet, way too smart daughter (Oona Laurence), a big, towering mansion, a lineup of the best cars and an impressive career, life is pretty good for Hope. However, when a terrible tragedy strikes, his life takes a turn for the worst and, soon, he goes from having everything to nothing - losing his wife, money, daughter and job in the process. All but lost, Hope finds himself looking to trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to help him get his life back on track and to make a comeback and get redemption for all he has lost.
You can always expect with any boxing film, be it Raging Bull or The Fighter or Southpaw, that our main character is going to take a pretty bad hit - mentally and emotionally - that they'll need to spend the film recovering from. However, what makes Billy Hope different is that the situation don't just go awry for him but it gets worse and worse and worse as the file progresses. The more we get into this film, the harder Hope is getting hit and the harder it gets for him to rise once again. This is as heavy a drama as they come; intense and hard-hitting. There's no room for glee. It actually gets depressing. But it's as real and raw a look at the struggle and vulnerability of this sport but also of man in general that you're going to get. You see Hope at his lowest and it's emotionally weighty.
Of course, the supporting cast anchor Gyllenhaal's triumph. Rachel McAdams is not only gorgeous to look at but she gives an endearing performance as Hope's mousy wife Maureen. You buy into their relationship so easily and so much that even the inevitable tragedy, that was shown in the trailer, is still an extremely heart-wrenching and emotional affair. Forest Whitaker is remarkable as Wills. He gives one of the best performances of his career as grudging trainer Wills and fits the role perfectly, creating one of the most ambiguous but intriguing characters of the picture. The real standout though, aside from our lead man Jake, is Oona Laurence as Hope's daughter Leila. The young actress gives such an astonishing and emotionally grounded performance, matching her Oscar-nominated and winning cast members on every front. And the chemistry between her and Gyllenhaal is brilliant and only adds to their broken relationship and the emotional power of it.
We also have rapper Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson in the film. His performance is probably the film's weakest but it's not bad, it's just fine. He basically plays himself and there's not much care for his character. However, with the small role and screen time he has, it's not much if a problem. In terms of other rappers, Marshall Mathers - also known as Eminem - was once, previously attached to play the lead role of Billy Hope. However, had he gotten the part, this would've been a very different film for Gyllenhaal anchors this project and is the reason it is as good as it is and it's hard to imagine any other actor do as good as job as he did in the role. However, the artist isn't completely absent from the project as his songs Phenomenal and Kings Never Die feature heavily throughout the film and they add a lot to the proceedings. The tracks go hand in hand with the brutality and the swearing and the anger of this picture so well that having it in the background really emphasises the atmosphere and tone of Southpaw.
The characters are laden with depth and humanity, so raw and real that it makes this film the powerhouse vehicle it is. There's a training montage and a grand finale fight. The road to redemption is hard for our protagonist. We've been there, done that. Kurt Sutter's script, however, thrives on these clichés. Southpaw wears it's inspirations on its sleeves. Sure, it may be unoriginal but despite being devoid of any ingenuity, this is still a compelling watch and an engaging, entertaining and thrilling boxing drama. The cinematography is sleek and gorgeous and Antoine Fuqua's direction is seamless and great, his style of shooting adding to the dark, gritty tone of the flick. The action has been captured so brilliantly too, playing and feeling like a real boxing match and not a glossy film. The sequences throw the viewer in the front seat of the fight and it makes for a more enthralling experience, putting us right in Hope's shoes.
About the Author
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.