Jake Gyllenhaal looks like a piece of thugged out granite in the trailers for this film and that Eminem track makes me want throw on my hoodie and punch some bags. I’d say that’s a pretty good impression.
Southpaw is, very much, your typical sports film filtered through the visual aesthetic and grit-infused mind of Antoine Fuqua (he of Training Day fame). It finds famed boxer Billy “The Great” Hope (Mr. Gyllenhaal, all muscles and tats) at the top of his game, beating up fools, taking hits in the cabeza and generally being every ounce of the toughened sports cliche we all love to love. Bad things happen though and in a sequence so drawn out and depressing I internally begged for beautiful shot boxing (which the film has plenty) to occur, Hope loses, well, everything – his wife, his daughter, his money, his friends and even his fleet of black cars with vanity license plates. As you can guess, the rest of the film follows Mr. Hope as, with the help of toughened trainer Tic Willis (Forrest Whitaker), he redeems himself as both a boxer and person. It’s nothing new, but in the hands of Antoine Fuqua it is, for the most part, one part tear-jerking tale of redemption/one part street-tough-boxing-film filmed in severe closeups with a heavy dose of gouting eye blood and slo-mo sweat droplets. Gyllenhaal manages to transform his foster-kid-turned-boxing-champion into a tightly wound hulk of man, broken by tragedy, and unable to find his way back. It’s another fine turn for Gyllenhaal, and if his punch-beaten face doesn’t pop up at the Oscars, I’d be surprised. I personally found Forrest Whitaker’s portrayal of a former boxer turned trainer turned less successful trainer the shining highlight of the film. Whitaker, his eye a cloudy remembrance of punches past, gives his character the sort of nuance and roundness one doesn’t often attribute to a sports film. His mumbly patois (there’s a lot of mumbling in this flick) and quick temper give Willis an indelible heart of gold, surround by the rough exterior of a man broken and redeemed. I found the boxing, the boxing training and well, anything that had anything to do with boxing to be superb in this film, but found my attention lagging as Fuqua takes Hope through the rigamarole of New York’s Child Protective Services. Clearly, this a film about overcoming the worst parts of yourself and living a better life, but this is not Fuqua’s strong point as a director and for every moment Gyllenhaal tried to convince his daughter to love him again, I wished for another boxing scene. But hey, if I have to trade earnest emotional outpouring for scene after scene of beautiful boxing, well, it’s a sacrifice worth making.
Not every sports film needs a gooey center. Sometimes I just want to watch people hit each other until their eyes explode. And in this film, sometimes that happens.