As emotionally charged inside the ring as it was out, with the result being one of the more layered boxing films.
Professional boxer Billy Hope had the world at his fingertips until his erratic behavior ignited a tragic event that would take his wife’s life and send his daughter to child protection services and he will turn to a small-time trainer to help get his life on track and his little girl back in his custody.
I would not say my expectations were low for this one but I assumed it would be a Rocky Balboa-like boxing movie without the famous Italian fighter weaving a traditional boxing movie script. But to my surprise this was a much deeper story-line based on a dramatic family story that in many aspects overshadowed the in the ring action. It was every bit the boxing film with heart-breaking moments and mass amounts of drama and as recycled as it may be, it was attention getting throughout.
This would not have been the highly entertaining film it was without the performance of Gyllenhaal who once again brings his A-game and pours himself into the role. Gyllenhaal is one of the more familiar faces in Hollywood yet recently each time he is cast in the lead role, be delivers a character that overshadows his persona. You only see the struggling fighter Billy Hope, not Gyllenhaal playing a boxer, and his character performance was exceptional. You can feel his pain, grief, inner struggles as well as his loss of will, and from start-to-finish his performance is compelling.
The rest of the cast was excellent as well. Forest Whitaker was perfect for the role of trainer, the emotion he gives off as Tick Wills was gritty, realistic and matched the riveting tone of Gyllenhaal’s character. I would not say their relationship is equal to that of Balboa and Mickey by any means, but for its purpose in the film the chemistry was strong and the two played extremely well off one another. The dialogue in their scenes together lure your attention as their relationship evolves and both question things the others do not want to answer.
Rachel McAdams was also very good, she conveyed the wealth of a champions wife but also gave off the feel of a woman from the neighborhood with many similarities to that of Hope’s character personality, having grown up in the system like he had. With their performances and the writing, you can quickly believe they had been together since they were young, the tight bond between them, and how she was as much a manager to him as she was his wife. The emotional connection between the two is built quickly and only fuel the emotional fire as the plot evolves.
Kurt Sutter wrote one deeply intriguing script and with many layers it weaves – the tragic details of a families destruction, the redemption of a professional boxer, a man used to relying on his wife being forced to become a man who can hold his head high as a father, the cold world of professional boxing, and the sports position as an outlet for kids in the neighborhood. It may seem like too much to fit into a single story but Sutter weaves them all seamlessly and with precise organization to make the result one emotional roller-coaster of a story-line.
The boxing in the film was also fantastic and delivers all the spectacle of the sport. The sweeping shots were well framed and the addition of some crafty first-person camera techniques pull you right into the ring as a viewer. The action was well polished and added adrenaline-charged moments that broke the dramatic pace of the script. Gyllenhaal was excellent and felt every bit the role of a pro fighter getting into fantastic shape. Throughout the film he looked and felt the part of a down-and-out boxer and being the protagonist and clear underdog in a boxing world that had stepped over him when times were tough all you can do is root for his success – for him as well as his daughter.
Over the course of the story you learn more about Hope’s personality and see the not so gracious acceptance of his status in some gut-wrenching scenes. As a viewer you want him to become the man the courts do to get his daughter, even more than his character at times it seems given some of his irrational behavior. The performance of Oona Laurence was perfect for the role that was written. Her chemistry with Gyllenhaal was great and they sell the father/daughter dynamic with ease. I also really enjoyed how the creation of her role, and the writing for it really made her feel like a daughter and younger version of McAdams’ character in many ways.
In the end this was still a boxing-movie and like that of the action-film there are formulas to follow. This one holds close to the line with the cliches you would expect from the genre, but (for me) it was highly enjoyable and watching delivered a range of emotions. While the story may have followed the genre recipe, it did so with intrigue and powerful performances to make it a much better film than it could have been. “Southpaw” will give you everything you expect, then gives you more and that is what makes this one of the better boxing stories in recent years and is highly recommendable to even to those who are not fans of the sport.