To be frank with you, “Southpaw” brings nothing new to its genre as dutifully following many familiar conventions of its genre. First, we have a tough boxer riddled with personal demons, and we already know he must confront them sooner or later – especially when he finds himself at the bottom of his life and career. Second, there is someone whom he lets down a lot, and that means he must earn his chance of redemption – and he is surely determined for that. Third, there is an obnoxious opposing contender, and it will not take a second for you to guess that there will be a big match to function as a dramatic climax – and we all know our guy will overcome the odds (if you think this is a spoiler, you are really in a serious need of watching more movies, sir).
Our troubled boxer hero in this case is Billy Hope, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with an eye-popping level of commitment as strikingly shown from his lean, muscular appearance in the film. While he must have been one hell of angry kid when he grew up as a problematic orphan drifted around orphanage and foster care, at least Billy found a productive way of ventilating his anger, and the opening scene shows his latest boxing match, where he finally becomes the World Light Heavyweight Champion when it is over.
While he is still in the need of anger management, his life has been so far stable and happy thanks to his professional success and, above all, his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who knows her husband better than anyone as a woman who once grew up along with him during their difficult childhood years. She has been his guiding angel to advise and protect him, and she is naturally worried when his manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) suggests another match for Billy, who is barely recovering from several big injuries he sustained during his last match.
After talking with his concerned wife, Billy begins to consider retirement seriously, but then he is struck down by an unexpected tragedy. Shortly after he and his wife attend a charity party, he comes across a young rising boxer who has annoyed him. When that guy happens to push the right button to ignite Billy’s hair-trigger temper, it inevitably leads to a prompt clash between them – and their entourage members. A gunshot is soon heard during this clash, and, after he is cooled down a bit, Billy is devastated to find that Maureen has been somehow shot – and she eventually dies even before being taken to the hospital.
And, of course, everything in Billy’s life is turned upside down after that. Without his wife standing by him, Billy is pushed into another match by Mains, and that only accelerates his ongoing downward spiral of grief, anger, and addiction. What he has accomplished for years are rapidly crumbled down as a result while he becomes more morose and violent than before, and then his young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) is taken from him after one destructive incident. He belatedly realizes how low he has hit the bottom, but he may never meet Leila again under this circumstance.
Trying to be with his daughter again, Billy starts to pull up himself as accepting his changed status. He moves to a small, shabby place after leaving behind his foreclosed mansion, and he goes to a local gym run by Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker with glassy left eye), a veteran trainer who once trained one of Billy’s better opponents in the ring. Wills is not particularly interested in training any professional boxer, but he hires Billy as his employee mainly because Billy needs any decent job for showing to social workers that he is trying to be changed enough for regaining the custody of his daughter.
Now you already have a pretty good idea about the rest of the story, and the screenplay by Kurt Sutter indeed does not surprise us a lot, but the movie does not lose our interest mainly thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s strong performance. Gyllenhaal, who recently gave one of his best performances as the chilling sociopath hero of “Nightcrawler” (2014), immerses himself in a completely different mode right from the opening scene, and he brings considerable intensity and gravitas to those predictable scenes where his character tumbles down along with his self-destructive fury. His character’s quest for redemption is not always convincing, but Gyllenhaal does not step away from his edgy portrayal even when his character becomes a bit tamer than before, and he is the main reason why the clichéd finale works even though we can clearly see from the start where it will arrive in the end.
The other actors around Gyllenhaal do whatever they can do with their stereotype characters, and some of them often overcome clichés thrown to them. Although she exits early in the film, Rachel McAdams leaves a lasting impression hovering over the rest of the film, and Forest Whitaker, who has not gotten many good chances for his immense talent since his thunderous Oscar-winning turn in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), gives an effective low-key performance as Billy’s reluctant trainer. While Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is rather monotonous as Billy’s opportunistic manager, Naomie Harris is sadly under-utilized as a sympathetic social worker, and young actress Oona Laurence, who received a special Tony Award along with other three young actresses for their contribution to the 2013 Broadway production of “Matilda the Musical”, is commendable as a daughter less immature than her father.
The director Antoine Fuqua, who previously directed “The Equalizer” (2014), did a fairly competent job of making the boxing match scenes in the film look as intense and exciting as required, and there are several moments which made me cringe for good reasons. “Southpaw” is a predictable sports melodrama to the core, and I still think Gyllenhaal’s performance deserves a film better than this, but he and other few good things in the film are worthwhile to watch. It is not a very good contender, but it throws some nice punches anyway.
Sidenote: This is one of the last works by Oscar-winning composer James Horner, who died in an unfortunate plane crash shortly before the movie was released in US.