All boxing films come down to three storylines, or all three wrapped in one—get beaten, get angry, get back to the top. Eighty years have passed since Wallace Beery made The Champ and Southpaw doesn’t try to rewrite the formula. It’s not a surprise, Barton Fink broke himself that way. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world, but it wasn’t always the high life. Billy was raised dumped from one foster home to the next because of his mother’s incarceration, but he eventually met his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and turned it all around.
Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t look like your typical boxer like say Robert DeNiro, Mark Wahlberg or Will Smith, but doubts about his ability to perform disappear immediately as the film opens. Madison Square Garden roars as Billy, bloodied and bruised, batters his opponent to the ground, winning the title. After the fight Maureen looks on as Billy’s eye has to be saved by doctors. She reminds him of the always present risk of brain damage and he responds “Why you gotta lay the truth right now?” He’s content to bask in the title he just won.
Acting as Billy’s manager and wife, Maureen knows that without his career they wouldn’t have their comfortable lifestyle, but at what cost does it come? Without Billy learning to defend himself better in the ring, the fear is that he will die there. For that reason Maureen keeps their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), at home for Billy’s fights. She receives texts from her mother telling her if Daddy won or lost. Before Southpaw dives too far into the consequences of professional sports, the formula comes back into play in the form of arrogant challenger Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Escobar taunts Billy at a black-tie event and the following violence results in tragedy.
In short time Billy loses everything as his rage turns self-destructive. Billy punishes himself in the ring taking blow after blow, playing the martyr for thousands of paying fans. Left with only his guilt, his pain-seeking ways become more exotic. Surprising no one, Billy is forcibly separated from Leila by the court. Billy’s fall comes relatively early in the film, only about 30 minutes in, and while we all know that a title match between Billy and Escobar is imminent, Southpaw finds its soul in a gym headed by trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker).
Cinematographer Mauro Fiore shoots Southpaw from outside the canvas, avoiding the in-the-ring combat of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, but his work in Tick’s gym is superb. Fiore bathes the film in shadow during Billy’s training in the early hours of the morning, lending a contemplative lens to the rehabbing of Billy’s life and career. The machismo can be overwhelming, especially considering that the script is from Kurt Sutter, but Antoine Fuqua’s interest in the rage that consumes Billy is worth following.
To discuss Southpaw is to discuss the lengths that Jake Gyllenhaal goes to authentically depict a pugilist. Gyllenhaal went through several weeks of training to bulk up for the part, and when it comes down to the fighting, Gyllenhaal is taking real punches instead of a stunt double. His choice would be easy to write off as an affectation for Oscar Gold®, but it’s a necessity. If audiences don’t believe he’s capable, then the film won’t work. Fortunately, Gyllenhaal more than holds his own in the close fights throughout Southpaw.
Southpaw certainly doesn’t buck any of the conventions that have filled boxing films for several decades, but the cast makes the predictable elements worth watching. Tick is the type of role Forest Whitaker could play in his sleep, but he infuses the part with a great deal of heart. Rachel McAdams also leaves a lasting impression as Maureen. (Hollywood, take note, keep casting her in projects.) This is Jake Gyllenhaal’s show though, and his effort to elevate the picture will likely see him rewarded come February.