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Jake Gyllenhaal, along with Tom Hardy, must be one of the most dependable young actors around at the moment. His rather disturbing turn in Nightcrawler surprised a lot of people, though personally I have been a fan of his for a long time, going back to his performance in the mind-bending teen drama Donnie Darko. Here he tackles a more physical role in Southpaw, a film about a boxer who is suddenly down on his luck. Does it avoid the clichés? Can it distance itself from the Rocky films?
Unfortunately it does suffer somewhat from a very predictable story, as well as a modern equivalent of a training montage. The action within the film isn’t predictable, but the ending is and it can be seen from miles away. This doesn’t ruin the film however, as it does have a lot of positive elements to offer. It is far from a modern Rocky movie, despite sharing some similar moments. This is because it has much more to offer than just a simplistic boxer’s story.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) starts off as an arrogant fighter, using his anger to push himself towards victories and a perfect record. It is this arrogance and anger that indirectly leads to the family tragedy that throws him off course, and it is also this attitude that causes him to lose his daughter to family protection services. As his wife predicted, as soon as he loses a fight, most of his entourage leaves him, leaving him alone and depressed. In fact, they don’t just leave him, they quickly change corners and begin working with another fighter.
After his fall from grace, Billy turns to ex-fighter come trainer Tick (Forrest Whitacker), who is hesitant to train him. His gym isn’t pretty, and is mostly the home for troubled young people for him to shape into real men. He doesn’t train pro-fighters, and is wary of Billy’s past attitude towards fighting and life in general. At first Billy is mopping the floors of the gym, until Tick decides to accept Billy as a fighter and trains him in the only way he knows how: using mind over matter to achieve success. He accurately points out that boxing is like a chess match, and fighting with anger is only going to hurt him when he is fighting against the best. Have dabbled in boxing myself, I can assert that the way Tick trains Billy is extremely well done and is technically sound, while also being great to watch, at least for a fight fan like myself.
The filmmakers obviously worked with some knowledgeable boxing trainers/fighters, as the fight scenes are terrific. They are brutal, they look realistic, save for one or two moments, and they are bloody. Very bloody. Using a real boxing announcer was a nice touch too. I found myself leaning forward, immersed in each fight as they are for the most part shot very well. The choreography here is excellent.
Gyllenhaal himself obviously worked with some great boxing coaches behind the scenes, as after he turns to Tick for training, his technique changes completely, changing from the anger-fueled fighter of the past to one who is more technically sound. I was very impressed with his performance in the second half of the film, after Tick has trained him, as you could almost mistake him for a pro boxer; chin tucked down, using his shoulders for protection. Jake’s physical transformation for this role is also quite something to behold; something like 2,000 sit-ups a day I read somewhere!! And it certainly shows:
One thing this flick does really well is that it shows the emotion that is behind the sport of boxing, and how the violence of the sport can affect loved ones. His wife tries to tell him that he can’t keep fighting the way he does, as we see her struggle to watch him go blow for blow in the first fight of the film. His daughter isn’t allowed to watch him fight, but after being taken away from him, she matures and during the last fight of the film, we see the flood of conflicting emotions wash over her as she watches her father fight. Southpaw has a big heart, which is easily its biggest asset.
However, in addition to the predictability and the cliched moments, this film still has its fair share of flaws. The most noticeable one being the script, which isn’t anything to yell about and apart from a few choice scenes, it is rather weak. Some of the acting also suffers; I don’t know why the filmmakers chose to cast “50 Cent” as a pivotal character in the movie. His obvious lack of experience in front of a camera shows and his performance is laughable. This is especially noticeable given Jake and Forrest turn in great performances opposite him. Rappers don’t make for good actors, I don’t give a toss how famous they are. Hell I don’t even think his music is any good.
While it is far from a perfect film, Southpaw hits hard both in the ring and emotionally. Even though I was pretty sure I knew what was coming next at most points, I was thoroughly immersed for the duration and would happily watch it again.