The history of boxing on film is a long and respectable one. The first sports events ever filmed were boxing matches and boxing matches were amongst the first events that filmmakers wanted to capture on film.
The sport lends itself extremely well to cinematic drama and over-the-years we have seen many great boxing films on our cinema screens. From the classics of cinema’s golden era such as Kid Galahad and Gentleman Jim, to what are now seen as modern day classics like Rocky and Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull.
Boxing has translated so successfully to a dramatic medium because it is an inherently dramatic sport with perhaps no other sporting event on the planet capturing such graceful violence. Boxers are often portrayed as modern day gladiators and the general public are intrigued by these athletes that take on such an uncompromising and often brutal career.
Southpaw is a boxing film centred on a series of fights late in the career of fictional pugilist Billy ‘The Great’ Hope played ably by Jake Gyllenhaal as he goes through some life-altering changes. Although he is surrounded by a notable and well performing cast, this is undoubtedly Gyllenhaal’s film. His transformation into Billy is remarkable. Not only is his body sculpted and shredded within an inch of its life, Gyllenhaal also drastically alters his mannerisms facially becoming Billy, complete with slurred speech and a heavily damaged left eye.
Gyllenhaal is a commanding on-screen presence at times displaying unbridled aggression and at other times hunched over and stoic as the drama that is unfolding on screen seems to overwhelm him, it is just a shame that Southpaw never really delves as deep into the character of Billy Hope as Jake Gyllenhaal very obviously did for his performance.
Antoine Fuqua directs Southpaw and the film is full of his now almost trademark raw masculinity, undoubtedly Fuqua excels in making films about the alpha male mentality and how said mentality can sometimes be a gift and a curse. Billy Hope is an angry man full of snarling aggression and rage. Billy was raised in an orphanage and there is the suggestion that his in-ring persona is the result of a tumultuous adolescence that lacked any stability other than his fellow orphan and future wife, Maureen.
Southpaw starts with the pre-fight rituals of a boxing bout, as Billy is surrounded by his entourage as he has his hands wrapped by a member of the New York State Athletic Commission. Music is blaring through Billy’s headphones and the film really does a great job of setting up the atmosphere of a big pay-per-view fight.
Cut to Billy in the ring, he is a reckless fighter, the definition of all out attack with zero defence, he only throws power shots and gets hit, a lot, so much so that by the end of this fight, Jake Gyllenhaal resembles a bloodied Paul Giamatti.
Billy wins the fight by knock out but leaves the ring looking as beaten, if not more beaten than his opponent. His entourage surrounded him to offer fawning praise, his trainers hoist him up on to their shoulders and his manager (slimily played by Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) starts to hint at future fight contracts before Billy’s gloves are even removed. The only person that seems to care about Billy’s actual physical wellbeing is his wife played by Rachel McAdams bound so tightly into a dress that Billy’s punches threaten to be relegated to second most explosive thing on screen.
Billy and Maureen’s relationship is defined by their shared past. He continues to fight in a reckless manner because he believes it is the best way to provide a life of riches to his wife and child. Whilst Maureen feels conflicted as she enjoys the trappings of wealth but does not wish to see Billy suffer the aftermath of a life spent receiving repeated head trauma.
One of the issues with Southpaw is that the film never explores its character’s relationships with any great depth, it presents the audience with interesting themes but the entire film feels like it has been drastically edited to cut down on its length, as such many of the relationships feel unexplored.
There are plenty of intriguing themes in Southpaw that are hinted at but never addressed in any real detail. The cost of the American Dream, the relationship between a father and daughter and most interesting is that Billy is a brash, cocky fighter from an impoverished background. A role that would stereotypically be played by a black actor that is here given to Gyllenhaal. The film occasionally hints at exploring this compelling theme of the blurring of racial identity but never really delivers on its initial promise.
There is no real way to accurately review Southpaw without at least one major spoiler. Maureen is accidentally killed in an incident where Billy and his entourage become involved in an altercation with the entourage of up-and-coming light-heavyweight contender, Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar.
Maureen’s death sends Billy into a downward spiral; he experiences financial and emotional ruin, loses his title belt and struggles with the responsibility of looking after his daughter, following the tragic death of Maureen, his anchor to normality.
All but one of his entourage leaves him and he is left living in a crummy apartment, whilst his former manager and confidant Jordan Mains becomes the manager of Billy’s new nemesis Escobar.
Billy’s daughter is taken into care following a wave of self-destructive behaviour from him. Billy is instructed by the judge to get his life in order should he ever wish to regain custody of his daughter.
He is initially reluctant to pull himself out of his depression, too proud to humble himself; he eventually decides to heed the judge’s instructions and heads to the run-down boxing gym owned by the trainer of a former rival whom Jordan Mains cheated out of a championship.
If the plot seems all too familiar, it is. The reason Southpaw stands out, is due to the excellent performances by all involved, this really is a well acted film. Forrest Whitaker is great as boxing trainer, Tick Wills and his relationship with Billy has a compelling arc, initially brought together by a begrudging mutual respect, the pair eventually forms a real bond of friendship. There seems to be a racial dynamic at play here too. Billy is training in a gym where he seems to be the sole white member and given his nickname ‘The Great Hope’ the themes of race are present but seem to have been drastically cut back to perhaps give the film greater mass appeal, which is a shame as they are a deeply intriguing subject to explore.
Similarly it is brilliantly refreshing that Billy’s relationship with a social worker played by Naomie Harris is not a romantic one. Social worker Angela Rivera initially seems to feel a mixture of sympathy and judgement towards Billy, which eventually turns to empathy and respect as he gets his life back together. Billy has to come to terms with being powerless as he needs to rely on Angela to help him win his daughter back. During this period Billy is a vulnerable person, all of his power in the ring is worthless in the fight for his daughter’s custody.
So many lesser films would have scripted that the pair eventually fall in love but here, at the end of the film as Billy wins his redemption, Angela simply smiles and walks away. The relationship is again relatively unexplored but that it is a platonic relationship between a man and woman is something you might not expect from such an initially loud and outwardly masculine boxing film aimed at a youthful audience.
Southpaw is a good film that had the potential to be great. Amidst all of the adrenaline fuelled fight scenes, the phenomenal pulse-pounding soundtrack; there are plenty of well-written characters that have believable human interactions with each other. Though they may be all too shallow, the fact that they are even noteworthy in such a film is a testament to the quality on display here.
Southpaw has a clichéd beginning, that may have you groaning in despair but it grows into a compelling story of redemption that at its core, is an unconventional tale of an alpha male’s love for his daughter and his quest to become a better father, which is sadly something we rarely see on our cinema screens.
The soundtrack is brilliant and what we have here is a well-shot film that aims high and only slightly stumbles. Southpaw is a film that is a director’s cut away from being a memorable classic boxing film that is brought up alongside the best the genre has to offer.