A knockout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal helps this standard boxing movie try to punch past its formula.
Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
The fallen hero's journey of redemption, tracking from champion to outcast and back again, seems tailor-made for the sports film genre. In a world where success is measured in competitive feats and physical milestones, the sinking and rising of a singular figure is afforded a framework for drama, and an easy manifestation of emotional highs and lows. Alas, it is also given a formula for overexposure, so much so that the story rarely continues to pack a punch thanks to its frequent use.
So ebbs and flows Southpaw, as steeped in its narrative arc as it is its feature type — and its subgenre within it, aka boxing movies. Writer Kurt Sutter (TV's Sons of Anarchy) and director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) jump over the ropes and into a ring used by many a filmmaker before them, and prove happy to stick to the usual moves. Their lead character ducks and weaves through the obstacles put in his way, both professionally and personally. His sense of self hinges upon going a few more rounds than he might otherwise be comfortable with, and ideally emerging victorious.
That protagonist is Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler), a man with a name that bursts and fades alongside his sparring technique. After climbing to the top of the middleweight boxing world, and earning the support of his wife (Rachel McAdams, True Detective) and admiration of his daughter (Oona Laurence, Orange Is the New Black), tragedy sees him cut off from all he knows and loves. To win back his parental rights, he must face his demons. Of course, even with the assistance of a new mentor (Forest Whitaker, Taken 3), confronting the pain that sees him spiralling through self-destructive tendencies as well as the system that has left him down but not quite out is far from easy.
With so many well-worn components at its core, what makes Southpaw stand out isn't its story, but its examination of the fallout of grief. Once more, the film enters acquainted territory; however it does so with raw sentiments to boost its recognisable beats. That such material has proven Sutter's common small-screen fodder clearly assists what proves to be a thoughtful and fleshed-out contemplation of someone trying to move forward when loss is holding them back. While Fuqua mines both the grit of violence and unhappiness and the glamour of popular sports, his aesthetic approach matches the feelings at play: sometimes shiny, sometimes stark.
Careening between glistening and broken down is what also serves Gyllenhaal well, as the film's knockout element. The script may understand the harsh realities of mourning, but it is in the committed lead performance that such stirrings blister with authenticity and intensity. When his brooding and brutality engages more outside the ring than within it, his importance to the feature is never in doubt. With his less utilised but still effective co-stars McAdams and Whitaker, Gyllenhaal might not quite overcome the clichéd confines he's fighting against, nor the heavy-handed James Horner (The Amazing Spider-Man) score that foreshadows everything narrative convention already dictates will happen, but he's what gives Southpaw its best shot at trying to reclaim greatness.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Director: Antoine Fuqua
US, 2015, 124 mins
Release date: August 20
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