Southpaw could possibly be considered as one of his most emotionally gut-wrenching offerings of his entire career and that’s saying something when you look at all the inherent turbulence and character angst in such offerings as Accidental Love.
It goes without saying that Gyllenhaal has proven himself to be a more than capable actor with his performances in Nightcrawler and End of Watch, but never have I witnessed him so convincingly change his entire persona to suit a role. Yes, we’ve seen actors transform their outward appearance to better interpret the role of a specific kind of athlete. So his outward appearance wasn’t shocking at all.
What was shocking, however, was the manner in which Jake altered his speech patterns and dialect to suit the character that he was playing, his background and his chosen profession. Also, as is often the case with professional athletes from depressed backgrounds, Gyllenhaal’s character is generous to a fault and seems to barely be able to contain his survivor’s guilt and he lavishes his friends with gifts to compensate. His wife Maureen, played by actress Rachel McAdams, serves as her husband's mental, emotional and professional compass. When she is killed in a post-fight altercation that could have easily been avoided, Billy Hope begins to crumble into a sea of mediocrity, poor decision-making and suicidal tendencies.
50 Cent makes significant contributions to the film as the sleazy, opportunistic boxing promoter Jordan Mains. Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you Fiddy deserves an Oscar but, for me at least, this is the most believable a performance that I’ve ever seen him turn.
One thing that any film-based boxing sequence has to have is great choreography. The fight scenes, as well as techniques and terminology used throughout the picture, are sound. Forest Whitaker stars as trainer Tick Wills. Admittedly, I enjoy Forest in just about anything he appears in. He’s one of my favorite actors. While I understood the need for a character such as Wills in this film, I felt like his connection to Billy Hope was a bit contrived. Almost as if the character were shoe-horned into the script or a significant amount of background between the two was edited out. Be that as it may, the performance was moving.
Actor Miguel Gomez has been on a slow but steady come up as of late so his role as contender-turned-champion Magic Escobar isn’t much more or less than what I’ve come to expect from him. He’s a solid actor and this is a solid interpretation of a boxer.
Young Oona Laurence may have given the best performance in the entire film. She’s perfect in her role as a precocious preteen who goes from the lavish life to poverty, from a loving home to child protective services, and successfully interprets all the emotions one might expect a child to have when going through such things.
Screenwriter Kurt Sutter didn’t do himself any favors with this script. The dialogue is rather impudent and predictable. Additionally, some of the scenes written into the film seemed like an attempt to over saturate the picture in so-called realness even after said realness had been established. It was just too much.
Also, the fact that the murder of Maureen Hope was never solved was another problem spot for me as well. It was if he thought the “no snitch” street rule had to be in the film just to show us how “real” it is. Naw, son! Just…naw. Sutter was great penning The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, but you don’t have to be an expert to see that this is his first time writing a feature film. My advice would be to hire writing assistants who are actually from the world he wished to portray rather than reading a couple of boxing books, listening to a couple old boxers, and winging it. Many of the more important exchanges come off as inauthentic because of it. The lead character’s name is Billy Hope? He and his friends were raised in an orphanage? He spent time in jail? C’mon maaaaaan (sigh).
Director Antoine Fuqua is usually great at capturing the gritty determination of working class people and illustrating all of the obstacles that they need to overcome to accomplish their goals. Additionally, his ability to splice in urban visuals and sounds to anchor his films in reality is also on display in Southpaw. However, seeing as though the film is about the loud and tragic life of a professional boxer, I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.
Southpaw is the story of a boxer’s fall from grace and sanity as much as it is about his subsequent redemption. I felt as though it was a little predictable but much of the acting was so good I found myself not even caring that I knew exactly what was going to happen halfway through the film. All and all, Southpaw isn’t for everyone. Some people don’t like urban, they don’t like blood and they don’t like gritty. However, if you can get past your preconceived notions about boxing, New York City and white guys, you’ll find Southpaw to be a welcome addition into the pantheon of pugilistic cinematic fair. Not very original, but entertaining all the same.
Despite its flaws, The Shadow League gives Southpaw a C+.