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Categories: Movie Reviews

Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is a conventional boxing drama that will feel familiar to most, but it’s well worth watching nonetheless for a committed lead performance from the phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Jake Gyllenhaal, unforgivably snubbed for the performance of a lifetime in last year’s Nightcrawler, steps into the Oscar ring for a second round with the heavy-hitting boxing drama Southpaw, which allows him to once again show off his talents as a method actor in an energetic new way. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) directs the film, which doesn’t challenge the boxing drama formula, but is sufficiently full of raw emotion and energy to be fully recommendable.

It’s no secret that Eminem was originally set to play the role of Billy Hope, the light-heavyweight champion of the world who tries to pull his life and career back together after losing his wife to a bullet and his daughter to social services, but it’s probably for the best that Gyllenhaal took over the role. His turn is reminiscent of Eminem’s role in 8 Mile, with a brash physical demeanor and a violent vocality, but Gyllenhaal’s subtle aloofness and quietness between the conflict shines through, creating a real character out of the troubled backstory.

Southpaw is a raw, energetic drama that relishes tension at every step of the way, from the thrilling boxing sequences to the moments of silent reflection between the gaps. Mauro Fiore’s loose handheld cinematography creates a sense of unhinged energy right from the get-go, introducing us to Gyllenhaal’s beefed-up Billy Hope with lightning-flash power in a gripping opening shot as he sits listening to hardcore rap music in preparation for a big fight.

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And then, after the obligatory exposition, we jump right into Billy Hope’s championship fight, as he violently defends his title as light-heavyweight champion of the world, showing off his all-out-attack, no-holds-barred style of pure, bloody, violent assault on his opponent. Despite him winning the belt and making big money, Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is worried his aggressive attitude will get himself killed, and that he’s not giving off the right impression to his biggest fan, his daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence).

Soon enough Maureen’s worries are realized, though it’s her who sees the full extent of the violence when she’s accidentally shot while Billy gets into a fight with loudmouthed opponent Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Billy is then sent into a seemingly endless downward spiral of self-abuse and depression in his grief, losing his house, his job and his daughter in the process. To help him get back on his feet and show social services he’s fit to look after his daughter again, he (reluctantly) takes up a job as a janitor at a gym run by renown trainer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forrest Whitaker), who also agrees to train him to regain his title. 

Southpaw is an admittedly conventional boxing film, giving little in the way of surprise to capitalize on the tension its atmosphere creates. It’s a typical rags-to-riches, comeback-kid-style sports drama that has its fair share of tragic moments but remembers that audiences don’t like to see the hero fail. Luckily, it’s hard to fault in every other respect, with superb performances all around and scenes that run the whole gamut of emotions. Oona Lawrence is adorable as Billy’s assertive daughter, though her character arc does feel a bit contrived at times, as if she’s been made to have a mood swing simply to fit in with Billy’s place on his own emotional journey.

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Eminem’s mark on the film has also been retained with the use of his song “Phenomenal”, which deserves consideration for the rapper’s second Oscar. In truth, the song is used rather generically during a training montage, but it’s great as a standalone and regardless has been ingrained within the ethos of the film nonetheless. 50 Cent also shows up in an excellent supporting performance as Billy’s manager, so Em’s influence certainly did not go to waste even if he did relinquish the title role.

Ultimately, I wasn’t all that shocked or surprised while watching Southpaw – everything happens pretty much as you’d expect it to – but I was often entertained, and was as sad as the film wanted me to be when the big tearjerker scenes came around. And at the center of everything is Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance helps lift up a relatively by-the-book boxing drama into above-average melodrama. He’ll certainly be in the conversation come Oscar season.

Southpaw is out now in UK theaters.

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Posted on Aug 3, 2015

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