By Kyle G. King. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter are two men who have sculpted their careers around tales of tough guy machismo. Fuqua rose to fame with the action-drama Training Day and continued with similarly toned films like The Equalizer, with Sutter breaking into the industry as a staff writer for The Shield and eventually helming his own series on Sons of Anarchy. Both men are interested in injecting a particular brand of heart and soul into their gritty male characters in an attempt to rise above the “flex your muscles, shoot some guns, ride a motorcycle” tropes that pockmark out a large portion of the “toughguy” genre. With their first project together, Southpaw, they take that rugged coordination into the ring with another Hollywood installment of *Don LaFontaine impression* “a boxer on the road to redemption”.
Originally modeled to star (and metaphorically echo the life of) rapper-turned-sorta-actor Eminem, Sutter’s script was shuffled around Hollywood for four years until finally catching Fuqua’s eye. After the real Slim Shady opted out to focus more on his musical endeavors, Jake Gyllenhaal was cast in the lead role: that of orphaned light-heavyweight championship boxer Billy Hope, whose punch-drunk fighting style earns him an undefeated record. But when his triumphant reign is challenged by young up-and-comer Miquel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez), the two headstrong fighters have an unofficial spat in a hotel lobby that Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) takes a fatal bullet for (it’s in the trailer, they want you to know it, calm down, no spoilers). Billy’s life crumbles into despair as he loses his house, his boxing contract, and custody of his and Maureen’s child amid booze induced suicide attempts and unchecked anger fits. But just like in the ring, the harder he’s punched, the harder he fights: to gain back his daughter, his money, and a championship title match against the man responsible for his wife’s demise (it’s an overwrought premise, I know, but hear me out).
It’s essentially the same premise as any boxing movie you’ve ever seen, yes: but even among the predictability and formulaic devices, Southpaw sneaks plenty of crushing jabs at your heart. No more than fifteen combined minutes are spared on an opening centered around the Hopes’ family life, with great chemistry from both script and performances (other boxing movies take note). The story of this rags-to-riches family feels relatable and authentic – you’re rooting for them early on. Though McAdams doesn’t get much screen time, her few scenes with Billy and their daughter (played by 12-year-old Oona Laurence) set the emotional centerpiece for the drama that unfolds. Young Laurence too, is a magnetic scene-stealing presence that steps up and delivers to fill McAdam’s vacancy as the symbol of what Billy fights for (though the script doesn’t allow her much beyond proving she inherited her father’s hot head.)
After his big shot manager dumps him (played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in oddly his most well-fit role to date), Billy turns desperately to dusty gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). The relationship between the two boxing aficionados doesn’t dive as deep as you’d want it to but their scenes still radiate the micro-helpings of inspiration, aggression, and camaraderie that put Billy where he needs to be. Gyllenhaal himself is the chameleon and physical force of nature he’s always proven to be. Even through Billy’s often mumbling dialogue, the straining (or reversely, the confident) posture Gyllenhaal displays speaks far louder than his words possibly could – understanding the inherent somatic character of a real boxer.
Sutter’s heavy hand does occasionally betray him, however (I mean the guy’s last name is Hope, for goodness sake). Much of the melodrama surrounding Maureen’s death, along with several other scenes — particularly a small subplot with a kid Billy meets at Tick’s gym — are all painful indulgences, drowning the saga within the already trite orphan-murder-redemption tale Southpaw is. Further burdened by a lot of cheap plot lines that take easy ways out, though the drama sure hits hard all together, its technique has predictable footwork.
Though the story feels ages-old, Southpaw is a rare breed of entertainment: one that gets by on solid performances both in front of and behind the camera. Emotional camerawork from cinematographer Mario Fiore and (aside from a new, exclusive Eminem track) the last score from the late James Horner both keep the film from getting stuck against the ropes. It’s tasty macho-male Gatorade: sure to quench, but shit. You’ve already tried all these flavors.