With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent. Written by Kurt Sutter. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R for language throughout, and some violence. 123 minutes.
SOUTHPAW is a story we’ve seen many times before, but it’s acted with such heart and directed with such skill that it’s hard to resist. It’s a boxing story about redemption (see “Rocky”) with the bond between parent and child (see “The Champ”) at its core. Credit a solid cast and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) for keeping things taut despite a two-hour running time.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undefeated light heavyweight champ, and he has a habit of taking a terrific beating before coming back for the win. He’s had a tough life but seems to be in a good place now. Having grown up in an orphanage, he’s married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another orphan he met there. They live an idyllic life with their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Without going into details, Billy–who has relied on Maureen and his manager (50 Cent) to handle the details of his life–loses everything. Like a modern day Job, he finds himself stripped of his relationships, possessions, and his boxing career. Hitting rock bottom, he goes to a gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming his life.
As a story it’s melodramatic. However Jake Gyllenhaal–who gave a brilliant and underrated performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler”–makes Billy more than an inarticulate lug. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he appreciates what he had in terms of personal relationships and support and never pretends he did it all on his own. He has to get beyond the feelings of loss and humiliation if he’s going to get his life back.
McAdams swiftly sketches in a character whose bond to Billy comes as much from their shared background as their current success. Whitaker’s character is equally complex, trying to keep Billy at arm’s length while trying to instill a sense of pride in the poor kids working and learning at his gym. Good as they are– and they’ve very good–the amazing performance here is that of young Oona Laurence as Leila. The character’s relationship with her father evolves over the course of the story, and Laurence is never less than believable as the pre-teen reeling from the mess her life has become.
Fuqua’s direction goes from the personal to the pugilistic with ease. The boxing scenes are brutal. Where early on non-boxing fans (such as this reviewer) may view the scenes as barbarous, things change when Billy comes under Tick’s guidance. It may not change your mind about real-life boxing, but Tick’s argument that boxing is more about strategy than brute force becomes clear in the final bout, bloody though it is.
As an entry in the venerable boxing film genre, “Southpaw” is simply a modern evocation of tried-and-true plot points and characters. What it loses on lack of originality it more than makes up for in execution, making this one of the unexpected surprises of the summer movie season.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.