When we see boxers, it’s only ever when they’re putting on a front. Whether it’s in the ring, or during the weigh-in beforehand, they have a duty to intimidate their opponent, and in turn, intimidate us. However Antoine Fuqua’s drama Southpaw gets behind the facade and revels in the more intimate, subtle moments at home. But any sense of realism where this title is concerned, is undermined persistently by the filmmaker’s inclination to be so melodramatic, letting the project down with so many needless additions to an already convoluted narrative.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays our hero, the undefeated superstar Billy Hope – who has just defended his title, and returned home, bruised and fragile, to his adoring wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Famed for his unique style of fighting, where he allows his opponent a number of punches, only to then capitalise on their fatigue later on – he now finds himself on the back foot in real life too, as his entire livelihood crumbles before his eyes. Knowing he needs to buck his ideas up and reinvent himself, he turns to the trainer Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker) who takes some convincing to return to professional boxing.
Boxing movies so often make for such compelling cinema, as they revel in the story of the underdog; this notion that anything can happen. It’s not like other sports – if you’re 3-0 down in football with a minute to play, you’ve lost the game. But in boxing you can be beaten to a pulp, knocked down several times, but all it takes is that one blow that will see you on top – and it’s that very notion that paves the way for this particular endeavour. Billy’s journey does become difficult to invest in though, as almost too much happens to him. There’s being down and out, and there’s Billy (no) Hope. It was a role initially designed for Eminem, to see the rapper finally follow up his Oscar winning semi-biopic 8 Mile with another leading turn – but the role eventually went to Gyllenhaal after Eminem backed out of the project. Initially it seemed like a shame, but having now seen the finished product you can’t imagine anybody else doing anywhere near as good a job as Gyllenhaal has managed. He’s not just transformed himself physically, but he has completely embodied this role, with a nuanced, empathetic turn.
You have got to suspend your disbelief to enjoy Southpaw though, and just let yourself go with the flow. There is a lot to be admired when doing so and certainly a lot of enjoyment to be had. Just don’t go in expecting a subtle, character-driven tale, and you should leave relatively impressed. A more cynical viewer will have many holes to pick of course, but this traditionalist tale of the underdog will appeal to the masses. It’s not quite Rocky, but it’ll do for now.