Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal has truly gained a worthy reputation of becoming a consistent, top-class actor capable of immersing himself beneath the skin of his character in order to deliver a shining performance. This is once again the case with his latest film, Southpaw which stars Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a prizefighter who endures a hurricane of horrible circumstances after a tragic incident costs him the life of his wife Maureen, played by Rachel McAdams.
Hope grew up in the (foster care/orphanage) system, but fought his way out thanks to a pair of boxing gloves, and he grew into a title contender who can take and dish out a lot of punishment in the ring. A skirmish with a cocky Columbian contender named Miguel Escobar, played by Miguel Gomez, results in gunfire, and Maureen is the victim.
Hope descends down a spiral of anguish and agony and his reckless behavior ends up costing him everything; his mansion, his cars, his entourage, he’s suspended from boxing for a year and legal services claims custody of his daughter Leila, played by Oona Lawrence. Determined to get his child out of the system he grew up in, Hope turns to veteran boxer Tick Wells, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, to get him back into shape, for both the ring and in life.
Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter, known from his work with Sons of Anarchy, may have intended Southpaw to be a crowdpleaser/tale of rise-fall-redemption much in the vein of Rocky, but unlike other recent boxing/fighting dramas such as The Fighter or Warrior, it fails to elevate the emotions and spirits of its audience in part of technical overcompensation, but it does deliver quality acting regardless and I appreciated the performances.
I went to see this because of Jake Gyllenhaal, whom I have become a true fan of recently. Still believe he gave an exemplary acting performance in Nightcrawler and he still lives up to the consistency I believe he is capable of. He simply transformed himself again as Billy Hope, this muscular, brooding, driven man who lost his purpose but found it again and he delivers a truly excellent leading performance.
Another actor who I profoundly respect is Forest Whitaker. His role as Tick Wells, this sage, beaten, haggard boxing veteran who helps Hope get back on the right path, he plays to perfection. There is this beautiful moment where Whitaker and Gyllenhaal are reeling from the news about this kid from Wells’ Gym was shot and they are talking and absorbing the blow of the news, you really feel a sense of these two actors just bringing out the best in each other with this moment.
Newcomer Oona Lawrence, I believe she is one to watch out for. She was very strong as Leila Hope, Billy’s grieving daughter who wants to watch her dad fight more than anything.
The rest of the cast including McAdams, Gomez, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Naomie Harris, Skylan Brooks, were all decent to say the least.
My overall problem with Southpaw: too many close-ups. I’m uncertain whether the decision to use so many close-ups were falls to Fuqua or cinematographer Mauro Fiore, but it just seemed as it the film wanted to be as “in-your-face” as possible in terms of conveying the action to the audience and there is a complete lack of distance with the spectacle.
In addition, the story follows every convention a story of redemption lays out for itself. There was just no surprise, no unexpected twist, or anything. It was as if you knew what you were getting yourself into, you are satisfied yet a little disappointed because you wanted more and that is how I felt when the lights went up on Southpaw.
I found the pacing of the film nicely done. Editor John Refoua has done a satisfactory job with how the film has a progression; the audience can keep up with what is going on.
I cannot say that this is one of the year’s best films because it doesn’t carry itself with a prestigious air like The Fighter did or it wasn’t as uplifting and powerful as Warrior but the acting in the film is top-notch. Southpaw is an appreciative picture because it features a quality performance from Gyllenhall, and strong supporting roles from Whitaker and Lawrence.
I believe Fuqua is still chasing the lightning he struck with Training Day, but Southpaw is worth a seeing even though I found it technically tame and bland.