When you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up
When everything you love has been taken from you, the only option left is to fight.Southpaw is at first sight a boxing film, but it doesn’t take long to realise that there is more at stake for protagonist Billy Hope than just being a champion. Obsessed with being the best and remaining at the top, Hope doesn’t realise what’s really important to him until it’s too late. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield) comes the story of big time pro boxer Billy Hope. As light heavy weight champion of the world, Hope has it all: a beautiful wife, doting daughter and all the riches to make his tough upbringing seem like a distant memory. But after suffering a tragic loss and losing everything he once held dear, Hope finds himself falling into a black hole of isolation and alienation.Only after hitting rock bottom does he realise the lengths he is going to have to go to in order to prove himself and get his life back on track. It’s on his path to redemption that Hope meets Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) the owner of a small gym in what can only be described as the poorer part of town. Taking kids in off of the street and instilling a sense of discipline and self control, Wills is the philosophical and down to earth trainer and mentor it seems Hope needed all along. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Wills other than Whitaker, he has that good guy mentality trying to do right by everyone. Determined to rebuild his life Hope hangs on Wills’ every word whilst working as a cleaner at the gym by night and training with the neighbourhood kids by day.
While boxing is a key feature of Southpaw the real story is about Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) rediscovering the art of boxing and using it to rehabilitate himself in order to take back control of his life and learn what it really means to be a father. A product of foster-care and Hell’s Kitchen, all Hope ever wanted to do was to protect and shield his family from ever experiencing the pain he felt growing up. Wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) plays a pivotal role in his life, having met when they were kids, she stood by his side through thick and thin. Maureen provides the balance and emotional stability to the hard edged Billy Hope, her priority is to ensure that her family remains intact and as far away from both of their difficult starts in life. McAdams role as wife and mother is done in a sensitive and caring manner with an honest purity, brilliantly showcasing the love her character has for her family.
The action played out in Southpaw is brutal but doesn’t feel over exaggerated. Filming both inside and outside of the boxing ring the audience feels the impact of each hit whilst remaining a part of the onlooking crowd. The camerawork used gives the feeling of actually being ringside and being able to hear each pound of the glove into flesh. Reminiscent of Scorsese’s Raging Bull the fight sequences are beautifully performed in an honest manner not shying away from showcasing the brute force it takes to beat another man directly in the face. Some of the shots used are done wonderfully to showcase the emotional state of Hope, framing him so that he is separated from those around him and using slow motion to highlight his deeply focused mindset.
With good performances from the cast, Southpaw delivers the punch you’d expect from a boxing film but adds emotional drama for a slightly different angle.
Gyllenhaal finds himself playing a character who’s actions speak louder than words. Reportedly having spent months in the gym, alongside director Fuqua, Gyllenhaal transformed himself physically in order to play Billy Hope. In a role that relies heavily on emotion, Hope is a man of few words, letting his face and fists do all the talking. Gyllenhaal is no stranger to changing his physique drastically in order to get into the mind set of the character he’s playing, just think back to his role in Nightcrawler as Louis Bloom - Gyllenhaal lost between 25-30 pounds to portray the character as he envisioned him. Immersing himself into the world of boxing, not too dissimilar to Robert Di Niro in Raging Bull, Gyllenhaal’s performance as pro-boxer Billy Hope is not only believable but also played with that certain essence that we have come to expect from Gyllenhaal. Feeding off of the performances from the rest of the cast, the emotional distress that Gyllenhaal shows on screen is hard hitting and portrayed with real passion.
Oona Laurence plays Leila, the daughter of Billy and Maureen Hope. Born into a privileged home courtesy of her father's boxing success, Leila didn’t have to suffer the pains of foster care or a broken home but despite this her character is remarkably levelheaded and isn’t the spoilt brat you might expect. Laurence’s interaction with Gyllenhaal is thoroughly moving and it’s clear to see that each of their performances drives the other's through the film. There are some emotional scenes between Laurence and Gyllenhaal which are painful to watch but are done well. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson plays Hope’s money hungry manager Jordan Mains and, despite my own reservations, actually plays the part well. The sly and manipulative Mains leaves a lot to be desired and appears periodically throughout the film to push and goad Hope in order to get his own way.
Southpaw is another boxing film about redemption, one that will eventually be added to the already long list of boxing films. But, what differentiates it from the rest is that it starts with the boxer already at the top and as we watch him fall from grace and descend into a world of self destruction. We are shown what it feels like to be in that vulnerable isolated place where everything you once loved has been taken away and see the heartache of a man trying to pull together the pieces of his broken life.
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