Movie Review: Gyllenhaal Enthralls in the Wobbly “Southpaw”

Southpaw is chock-full of traditional boxing film tropes but the strong performances, tidy camera work and touching score by James Horner make it worth the price of admission. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), is highly traumatized by the unexpected and untimely death of his wife (Rachel McAdams) and finds himself in a downward spiral. When he hits rock bottom he seeks the assistance of coach Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). Numerous scenes of the struggle, of loss and training feel familiar to past fighting films but are made more intense with Gyllenhaal’s all-consuming performance. Watching him become Hope is reminiscent of watching the masters of the 1970’s: Pacino, DeNiro, Nicholson. There are no signs of Gyllenhaal’s calm, well educated demeanor in the character Billy Hope. Hope walks, breathes and thinks differently than Gyllenhaal. The only sign of the actor himself flickers by in the one moment when the actor lets out a hearty laugh. I thought, “there he is.” McAdams is also almost unrecognizable as a street-bred baby living in the life of tacky luxury provided by her husband who knocks people to the ground for a living. Whitaker is always at the top of his game and does not disappoint as coach Tick Wills.

The music is a character in itself. There are some grossly misplaced pieces by Eminem. They feel both dated and weak compared to traditional rap and the emotional and physical journey that we take with Billy Hope. The score by James Horner both compliments and informs the flow of the film. This was his last film score before his tragic death earlier this year. At times he uses a deep, steady thrumming heartbeat sound that adds tension and brings the viewer into the ring with Billy. Horner’s  infamous ethereal tones carry our hearts on the notes that trickle like water down a wall of rocks.

Director Antoine Fuqua is a master of creating films with strong men that have a sensitive core (Training Day, The Equalizer, Shooter). Manliness is inherent in the world of boxing and Fuqua manages to tamp the temptation to overkill with testosterone by using Billy’s relationship with his daughter as a key plot point. This softness married with the crisp photography and rich color palette make the film visually stimulating throughout.

If the film were a bit less formulaic and a bit less melodramatic it would be great. Instead, Southpaw is a very good film that happens to be about boxing.
My Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Kurt Sutter and Richard Wenk
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker
Runtime: 123 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2015
MPAA Rating: R

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