Southpaw. I've thought of it before, but it hit me square in the face this time around. All boxing movies are remakes of Rocky to one extent or another. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it do make things a tad predictable at times...
From nothing to greatness, boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world. He grew up in the system and made something out of himself because of his boxing ability, which his 43-0 record attests to. Billy loves his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), more than anything. It's the point in his career though where Billy doesn't win as easily, taking far more of a pounding in the ring than he used to. Still, he believes and his manager believes that his best days are still ahead of him. That plan and hope for the future though is ripped apart when tragedy strikes his family, putting Billy into a tailspin that causes him to lose everything, including his daughter. He sinks to rock bottom and has nowhere to go but up. Where will he hopefully find his redemption? Back in the ring, going back to the basics of the sport he love(d) so much.
What is it about boxing stories that work so well in film? My thought is the underdog status that hovers above the sport. Boxing is a sport that can chew up its competitors and spit them out in an instant. One loss, and that's potentially it. Your career could be over, your chance at a title belt gone because of one punch, one fist landed. So what do folks love so much about that premise? The redemption factor, a second chance, an opportunity to prove what you're capable of, fighting back against the sport that seemingly wants you to fail. When those second chances turn into success stories...yeah, it makes for a good movie.
From director Antoine Fuqua, 'Southpaw' is a really solid, familiar and well-acted boxing story that certainly shows the impact of Rocky some 40 years since the original's release. It's not that 'Southpaw' isn't good. It is. It's really good, but no matter what I did I couldn't help but feel I'd seen the movie already. First off, the trailer (I'll include the link below as always) gives away a HUGE FREAKING TWIST so don't watch it. Fighter is at the top of his game, he tumbles, must climb back up. Whole scenes felt duplicated from Rocky, from Million Dollar Baby, from Warrior and plenty of others I'm probably forgetting. Now the beauty of that quasi-duplication is that what it's mimicking (or following in footsteps) are damn good to classic movies. So yeah, that's my biggest complaint. It isn't original. If you've watched sports movies, you've seen Southpaw...but it's good, really good.
Man, Jake Gyllenhaal is the absolute best. I don't know if there's a more talented actor currently working in film. He follows up his best performance yet -- last year's Nightcrawler -- with another excellent performance, bringing to life the rags-to-riches-to-rags Billy Hope, a fighter who's made something out of himself with the unwavering support of his wife, Maureen (an excellent part for McAdams). For starters, Gyllenhaal got into extreme physical shape and certainly looks the part of a champion boxer. He looks natural and believable in the ring, a vital part of any sports flick, a believable athlete in the lead. More than that though, it's an acting performance dripping with intensity, rage and tension, a man not too far from going over the edge and constantly pulling himself back to try and make things right. There are some huge, gutting, absolutely draining moments that Gyllenhaal shows (again) what a great actor he is. Can't wait to see what he's up to next!
What does a good underdog need? A coach who isn't gonna take his crap, who instead is gonna push him to his limits and then keep going. In the Mick role, Forrest Whitaker is a scene-stealer, a great match to Gyllenhaal as Tick Wills, a gym owner who works with kids in the city and a former boxer himself who saw his fighting career cut tragically short. He's worn down, beat up by the world but keeps on going. The movie's most effective moments are these two beat-up fighters just talking, shooting the breeze, feeling each other out. Their chemistry is pretty flawless developing a relationship with some extreme highs and lows. Along with McAdams and Laurence (a very talented young actress), look for 50 Cent in slimeball mode as Billy's boxing manager, Naomie Harris as a social worker, Beau Knapp as a friend of Billy's who on his training team, and Skylan Brooks as Hoppy, a teenage fighter Billy works with at Tick's gym.
As emotionally effective and heartfelt as the more emotional scenes are, 'Southpaw' is at its most comfortable in the gym and in the ring. The fights are well-choreographed and brutal as a high-level fight should be. You grimace as the punches land, as the blood starts to flow and the fighters try to punch their way through a fight. Billy's principal rival -- in more ways than one -- is a tough, fast-talking Colombian fighter, Miguel 'Magic' Escobar (Miguel Gomez), outfitted with a brutal punch but the fundamentals and footwork to match it, an all-around specimen. The finale packs the biggest wallop, both in terms of the adrenaline-pumping fight but also the emotion wrapped up in it. Like the best sports movies, you find yourself rooting for our guy, for Billy to come through, to put his demons aside and do what he couldn't. Excellent ending full of excitement as one round turns to two and on and on. Oh, and the training montage is superb. You need a superb training montage.
Nothing flashy, but an excellent cast -- especially Gyllenhaal and Whitaker -- with a familiar but extremely well-told underdog boxing story. Highly recommended. Now bring on the newest flick in the Rocky franchise, Creed!
Southpaw (2015): ***/****