You know what’s weird? Even though I don’t really care for sports in real life, I surprisingly really enjoy watching films that are based about them (whether they narrative films or documentaries). One sport in particular that I find compelling to watch in a film is boxing. While the sport of boxing can be quite brutal in real life, I will admit that it does make for great drama for a film. There have been many great films about boxing over the years (ROCKY, RAGING BULL, MILLION DOLLAR BABY etc.), so I’m always interested to check out any film that has it the central part of its story. When I first heard that director Antoine Fuqua tackling it for his latest film SOUTHPAW, I knew that it would be right up my alley.
The film tells the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a hugely successful boxer who is currently the World Light Heavyweight champion. Despite having the world at his feet, he knows that the two most important people in his life are his supportive wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). However following an intense altercation with rival and up-and-coming boxer Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar at a charity event, tragedy strikes Billy and his world is turned upside down. Everything in his life begins to fall apart as he defends further into drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. But when Billy realises that what he is doing may cost him custody of his daughter, he decides to get his life back on track and start boxing again with the help of trainer Titus ‘Tick’ Willis (Forest Whittaker).
Now if you have read my reviews of director Antoine Fuqua’s previous two films OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and THE EQUALIZER, you know that I do find him to be a bit of mix bag as a filmmaker. While he has made some pretty good films, he also has a habit of making rather average ones as well (particularly when it comes to some of his action films). However to me some of his work has been his non-action films/blockbusters like the dramas TRAINING DAY and the underrated BROOKLYN’S FINEST. So I figured that SOUTHPAW would be more in line with those two films. So what did I think of it? Unfortunately, I found the film to be pretty disappointing to honest. While it had potential to be a great film, there’s just nothing particularly special about it that we haven’t seen many times before in other films in the past. I think the main reasons why this didn’t work for me was because of both the script and the direction. The script by Kurt Sutter (the creator behind the acclaimed TV show SONS OF ANARCHY) is both clichéd and predictable. Usually I can forgive a film for being like as long as it’s still both well made and compelling, but everything that was happening in the film plot wise feels so incredibly contrived I couldn’t emotionally connect to anything that was going on. For example the scenes of Billy’s fall from grace felt so rushed and over-dramatic, that it came across feeling extremely forced. Also it didn’t really give much for most of the cast to do (Naomi Harris was criminally wasted in her role). While Fuqua’s direction was solid for most part but sadly when it came to the film’s more dramatic scenes, they didn’t work for me at all. The way that Fuqua approached these big emotional moments felt so heavy-handed and unsubtle, that the tone of these scenes came across feeling really melodramatic. Plus it didn’t help that late James Horner’s score can be really overbearing at times during them as well.
Now you’re probably wondering, why was there anything in this film that I did actually like? Despite my problems with the film, there were aspects of the film that I thought were good. One of those is definitely the performances from the cast, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Billy Hope. While the film may have many faults, he definitely isn’t one of them. Gyllenhaal gives another really strong turn with his performance here. He proves that he one of my favourite actors today by really (and I mean really) getting into both the skin and mindset of Billy Hope. Gyllenhaal’s psychical transformation into this character is just blowing. I couldn’t believe the amount of muscle he put on for this role (especially when you compare to how he looked in his previous film NIGHTCRAWLER, where he looked like skin and bones). Even though the film didn’t really affect me too much on an emotional level, but Gyllenhaal’s compelling performance that did have me invested when he was onscreen. While the most of the supporting cast weren’t really given much to do with their roles, they still did the best with what they had and gave solid performances nonetheless: Forest Whitaker gave a really strong performance as Billy’s trainer Titus ‘Tick’ Willis and I like the layers that he brought to his character. Newcomer Oona Laurence did surprisingly well as Leila. Even though she’s only a child, she brought a real maturity to the role and her character’s relationship with Gyllenhaal was engaging. Even though she isn’t in the film as much as I thought she would, Rachel McAdams was really good as Maureen. She definitely added a lot of aspects to her character to make her a bit more than just a standard ‘supportive wife’ role. Plus I really enjoyed her scenes with Gyllenhaal. They both have great onscreen chemistry. Also despite my problems with way he handled the film’s more emotional scenes, I did think that Fuqua’s direction was still quite solid for most part. The boxing scenes particular were really well done and they were quite believable in their brutality. Plus the cinematography by Mauro Fiore was really good too (I really like the film’s final shot) and the soundtrack was great.
Overall while there are a lot of certain aspects that I did like about SOUTHPAW but sadly as whole, I thought it was pretty average myself. I’m sure a lot of you out the might enjoy it a lot more than I did, but it just didn’t really work for me too much. It’s watchable if rather forgettable film.
Review written by Bede Jermyn