‘Southpaw’ – Heavyweight on performance

Film: “Southpaw”; Language: English; Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, Rita Ora, Claire Foley, Beau Knapp, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Gomes and Skylan Brooks; Director: Antoine Fuqua; Rating: ***

“Southpaw” is a classic boxing drama of fall and redemption. It’s an inspirational tale of a damaged champ’s fight in and out of the boxing ring, where he struggles to outgrow his self-destructive anger in order to regain all that he has lost.

It’s the story of light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope. After winning a tough and ruthless fight, he is coaxed by his wife Maureen to announce his retirement so that they can have a peaceful family life with their young daughter, Leila. Billy agrees much against the wishes of his manager Jordan Mains.

So with his entourage that includes his manager and wife, Billy makes the announcement of his retirement at a press conference. During his speech, Billy is taunted by a young boorish boxer, Miguel “Magic” Escobar who hoped to challenge him in the ring.

After the conference, Escobar continues with his tirade. Much against Maureen’s wishes, Billy succumbs to Escobar’s taunts and reacts harshly, by grappling him. This leads to a tragedy that has a domino effect on Billy’s personal and professional life.

While Billy’s tale is engrossing, Kurt Sutter’s screenplay, definitely seems old-fashioned and one-dimensional, where every scene is constructed to show Billy suffering. It leads on to a sadistic pleasure of digging into Billy’s grim life with aplomb. The scenes exhibiting the calamities in Billy’s life seem unending.

There is no relief, no comic moments or any effort to alter the tone from grimness except at the end. Also, the screenplay misses out on some key scenes that would help in making Billy a more convincing character.

“Southpaw” belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal. A far cry from his previous character in
“Nightcrawler”, a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal has physically and mentally transformed himself to slip into Billy Hope’s shoes.

With his posture, gait, speech, bruised face and flexing muscles, he portrays the character’s emotional anguish in every scene — be it in the boxing arena or when he is pining for his daughter.

He is aptly supported by the entire cast, especially Rachel McAdams as his wife Maureen, Oona Laurence as his daughter Leila, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as his ingratiating business manager Jordan Mains, Miguel Gomez as the boxer Escobar, Naomie Harris as Angela Rivera the member of the Child Protective Services under whose care Leila is entrusted and Forest Whitaker as Tate Wills, the owner of a gym and his trainer when he is down and out.

On the technical front, the film has good production values. Production designer Derek R. Hill’s sets are brilliant and they are realistically captured by Mauro Fiore’s dramatic low-key cinematography. With an unsteady camera, Mauro captures the intense subject in tight close-up frames that highlight only the significant parts of the faces and the sets. This, when used judiciously is brilliant, but the extensive use of this technique overeggs the pudding.

The well-executed boxing scenes are pumped up with emotional and brilliantly calibrated score by James Horner that ranges from moody to rap.

And at the end of it, if you wonder, why the film is titled “Southpaw”. Well, for the uninitiated, Southpaw is term used for the stance of a left-handed boxer, which is very evident in Hope’s case in the last fight sequence.

The film is light on story and a heavyweight on performance. Watch it for Jake Gyllenhaal’s histrionics.

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