sun 21/07/2024

Southpaw | reviews, news & interviews



Jake Gyllenhaal is the human punchbag seeking redemption in Antoine Fuqua's boxing drama

Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy 'The Great' Hope

The boxing movie has been a gift to filmmakers virtually since the dawn of cinematic time. In 1932 Jimmy Cagney was swinging for the title (and the gal) in Winner Take All, but some say 1947's Body and Soul, starring John Garfield as boxing champ Charley Davis, is the one most of the other screen boxers are indebted to, from Sly Stallone's Rocky to Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw isn't likely to set a new benchmark in celluloid pugilism, despite contusion-evoking verisimilitude in the fight scenes (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the central character Billy "The Great" Hope, copped at least one real-life sock on the jaw during filming). There are some irresistibly tearjerking moments and scenes which feel like chunks of the squalid reality behind the showbiz glitz of the fight game, but ultimately the piece is let down by a story arc which can't shake free of its too-predictable trajectory. It's as if Fuqua and his screenwriter Kurt Sutter assumed that if they got their characterisations to ring true the story would fall naturally into place, but it doesn't quite work that way.

Gyllenhaal has been racking up plaudits for all the hours he spent at the weights and the punchbag, and his muscled-up torso looks like an airbrushing miracle from Marvel Comics, but I can't help feeling Jake is an actor who's better at suggesting interiorised states of mind rather than the bloodied, unreflective machismo that's required here (think Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, or Stallone for that matter). The script likes to keep reminding us that both Billy and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, looking eerily like Kylie Minogue) grew up in orphanages in New York's Hell's Kitchen, but the story needs more than merely holding up metaphorical placards to alert us to the rags-to-riches, poor-boy-makes-good theme.

It's unfortunate that it's Maureen who fails to go the distance, after some testosterone-fuelled sparring between Billy and his would-be challenger Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Miguel Gomez) goes bad and firearms are drawn. McAdams is persuasive and sympathetic as the fighter's wife who appreciates what boxing has brought her, but is growing increasingly concerned about the toll it's taking on her husband's health. The opening sequence, a big set-piece bout at Madison Square Garden, bloodily and concussively spells out the cost of hitting and being hit for a living.

It may not surprise you to learn that the story evolves into Billy's anguished struggle for redemption, after his mansions-and-Ferraris lifestyle is taken away from him and he has to go back to basics in all respects. He finds himself living in a one-room hovel, and somehow has to care for his smart – much smarter than him, in fact – and adorable daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), but it belatedly dawns on him that his wife has hitherto done all the parenting. Despite being an ex-light heavyweight world champion he even has to learn how to box again, through the offices of Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker, pictured above left with Gyllenhaal), cast in that warmingly familiar cliche of the old black trainer whose gruff exterior masks his guru-like wisdom and intuitive understanding of life's great mysteries. Crucially, Tick notices that Billy has no defensive technique (he relied on his opponents to keep hitting him until he got really angry and then flattened them). "Stopping punches with your face isn't defence," Tick points out, a morsel of wisdom which goes a long way.

Southpaw is always watchable, and visceral enough to let you temporarily overlook the holes and pitfalls, but it's frustrating because it could have been much more. Maybe part of the problem is that it was originally intended as a vehicle for Eminem (whose real-life story it partly reflects), which would have made a lot more sense of the bling-and-rappers milieu in which Billy Hope lives. It does, however, give rapper, business mogul and actor Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson space to perfect his role as Billy's manager Jordan Mains, a suave and utterly unscrupulous hustler who'd sell his own family into slavery for a fat enough percentage of the take. This is a character who rings all too true.

'Southpaw' is visceral enough to let you temporarily overlook the holes and pitfalls, but it's frustrating because it could have been much more


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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