There is an undeniable poetry to boxing, or there was, at least: To the ebb and flow of two bodies in the ring, weaving and ducking and lashing out; to the roar of the crowd; to the spare lyricism of a fighter’s oratory; to the satin finish of a ring robe or the gleam of sweat or a sudden burst of blood from a ruined nose. Though boxing’s popularity has been and still is in decline, films like Antione Fuqua’s Southpaw keep the embers glowing, using the pugilist’s chiseled body and dazzling fight choreography to create an impression of the sport that it is increasingly incapable of producing upon its own canvas.
As shot by Mauro Fiore, Southpaw has a dazzling grace between the ropes despite its lead’s strategy of taking punches to the face. Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is battered from the start, bleeding from the mouth and dripping onto the canvas like a splatter artist, but even with a gristly cut over his eye he is in firm control over his opponent. It takes him longer than expected to put his challenger down, but he is an aging fighter who was born punching, a product of the system who has spent time in orphanages and in lock-up—getting beaten up is how he motivates himself to finish off his opponents. His wife (Rachel McAdams) is rightly concerned that if he keeps fighting the way he fights, he’ll end up punch drunk before retiring.
If Southpaw were just that, an examination of a declining championship boxer caught between his motivation to headline pay-per-views and his wife’s desire that he live a long life, it would have been something interesting, a realtime take on some of the darker corners suggested by the later, poppier offerings of the Rocky franchise. For Fuqua and Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, decline is not enough. After that first successful fight, Hope (notice the name) has to survive an odyssey of melodrama to arrive at a somehow fight-hungry nation’s much-wanted bout against number one contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). His wife is shot and killed by an associate of Escobar’s during a charity event, and, lost in a tumult of grief, Hope loses everything: His will to fight, his championships, his money, his promotor, his house, and, after nearly killing himself while driving under the influence, his daughter (Oona Laurence). Picture somebody snapping their fingers—that’s how fast Hope loses everything.
This is, of course, necessary for the former champion, out of place in his opulent mansion and buying bezeled watches for his crew, to find himself at the mercy of an old pro turned trainer (Forest Whitaker) who believes in boxing as a tool by which men make themselves men. The relationship between the two is effective, as Whitaker has long brought soul to even thankless roles like cornerman, and Gyllenhaal has become one of the most interesting actors working today. Both Billy Hope and Tick Willis are men as wounds, one trying to heal and one that can’t. That Willis wants to teach Hope how not to get punched, to control the anger that was both his advantage in the ring and, the trainer presumes, the thing that got Hope’s wife killed, adds some necessary texture to a training montage that otherwise would have been all-marveling at Gyllenhaal’s amazing physical transformation.
Southpaw plays out as one might expect it to, as a boxing movie about a man named Hope must. Its use of every boxing film cliche and its inclination to fridge Billy Hope’s wife (not to mention a young fighter at Willis’ Gym) feels tired—cynical, even—but Gyllenhaal’s deft touch, his body language in scenes where Hope is dealing with grief and his failure to be a father, redeems the material to the point that it’s possible to enjoy its fights regardless of what they mean narratively, as pure, violent spectacle. Sutter has called this film a spiritual successor to 8 Mile, the clumsy, working-class fable about a hardscabble white rapper who makes good on his phenomenal talent, and that explains a lot of the choices Southpaw makes and doesn’t make, the way the pyrotechnic flair of the protagonist’s occupation is meant to make up for the flatness of his surroundings and the script’s failure to examine the nature of Billy Hope’s second chance. Of course the boxer redeems himself. That’s what our culture demands.
Southpaw. With Jake Gyllenhaal (Billy Hope), Forest Whitaker (Tick Willis), Rachel McAdams (Maureen Hope), Naomie Harris (Angela Rivera), Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (Jordan Mains), and Oona Laurence (Leila Hope). Directed by Antoine Fuqua, from a script by Kurt Sutter.