Boxing movies are like romantic comedies: they come in neat packages, follow tried-and-true formulas, and rarely challenge conventions. There are outliers, of course, like Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull, but those are rare. For the most part, the boxing movie falls into one of two categories: Rocky or its sequels. Southpaw is a member of the class of recent productions that gravitates toward the latter: stories more about humanity and relationships than winning or losing. In Rocky, it was less about beating Apollo Creed than showing grit, earning respect, and getting the girl. Fundamentally, Southpaw isn't much different.
To the extent that most boxing movies are about redemption, Southpaw isn't an exception. When the broad strokes are considered, it follows the expected trajectory. The movie's strengths crystallize from nuance and performances. We care more about Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) the man than Billy Hope the boxer, although the two are inextricably entwined. The salient dynamic isn't Billy vs. the arrogant opponent or Billy vs. the world; it's Billy vs. himself. And the "girl" he pursues isn't a romantic interest, it's his 10-year old daughter.
Southpaw isn't content with presenting a gallery of clichéd characters. It takes the time to put flesh on the bones. Viewed from a high-level perspective, they're familiar: the down-on his luck pugilist, the grizzled trainer, the caring wife. But the script makes them real and the actors invest in their portrayals. I won't pretend there isn't a surfeit of testosterone. Director Antoine Fuqua imbues the matches with sufficient intensity for us to have a rooting interest. In the end, however, we're conscious that the real struggles occur outside of the ring and what happens in the inevitable Big Event is of secondary importance.
Billy "The Great" Hope is the undefeated middleweight champion. But, with age creeping up on him, he's showing vulnerability. He gets hit more often and, in his latest fight, it takes a knockout for him to win. His manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), isn't worried - he sees only $$ and intends to bleed Billy under the guise of friendship until there's nothing left. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), feels differently. She wants Billy to take some time off to heal and be a father to his devoted daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Circumstances and self-destructive impulses force him into an untenable situation that leave him destitute and abandoned. He seeks the help and advice of a new trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), whose tough-love approach offers him an opportunity to regain his self-respect and, more importantly, win back the trust of one little girl.
If Southpaw had been released in November, it might have garnered three acting Oscar nominations. Those performances elevate material that's already serious and thoughtful. The Academy has a short memory, however, so the July opening makes it questionable whether anyone will remember these players when it comes time to hand out end-of-the-year plaudits. Following Nightcrawler with another amazing physical transformation, Gyllenhaal commits to inhabiting Billy. Forest Whitaker, who has recently accepted a large number of unchallenging roles, provides an intensity we haven't seen since his Oscar-winning portrayal in The Last King of Scotland. And, for Oona Laurence, this is as commanding a breakthrough performance as we have seen from a young actress since Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit.
Southpaw features the final score composed by James Horner. It's also one of his best - accentuating moments and emotions without dominating scenes. It's low-key and effective and sounds nothing like his previous compositions. Because Fuqua was working on a limited budget, Horner contributed without pay. The movie is dedicated to his memory.
If you're looking for surprises and twists, Southpaw offers few. Its strength lies not in the cleverness of its narrative but in the depth of its characters - well-crafted, believable individuals who make the predicable story seem more unique and compelling than it might otherwise be. In a way, this is a bait-and-switch because, although the marketing campaign leads us to believe this is just another boxing movie, the father/daughter relationship underpins every frame. Fuqua has crafted something unusual in this day of cookie-cutter blockbusters and overwrought dramas: a serious, sincere summer motion picture.
© 2015 James Berardinelli