The boxing film Hall of Fame holds great works like Raging Bull, Rocky, and Million Dollar Baby. Each of these films takes a different approach, making them feel like their own unique combatant. Southpaw, the new film from Antoine Fuqua, takes the best parts of each of these films and meshes them together into a sort of “greatest hits” of boxing movies, resulting in a film that tries too hard to be what was successful which prevents it from being a true contender among the greats. But that doesn’t stop it from getting in a few good punches, especially in its cathartic fight scenes and tremendous performances.
Riding high on the success of his 43rd victory in a row, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal in an astounding performance,) finds his world completely shattered after the murder of his wife and the loss of his child to Protective Services. Gyllenhaal continues on his triumphant streak after Nightcrawler in what is yet another performance that proves he is one of the best and most versatile actors working in Hollywood. Just like in Nightcrawler, he dives deep into the role, looking like a boxer in the process while also being hardly recognizable as himself. He captures the “punch-drunk” dialogue perfectly, making it feel like he really has been hit in the head too many times. His biggest downfall is his explosive anger, which benefits him in the ring but causes issues outside, and Gyllenhaal delivers these moments with ferocious depth.
While the film gives Gyllenhaal a lot to work with, there isn’t much for the others to gnaw on. Rachel McAdams, who plays Billy’s wife, Maureen, is hardly in it, though she makes us wish she was with her few brief scenes before her murder. Oona Laurence, a young actress who manages to steal the scene away from Gyllenhaal, is marvelous as his daughter, Leila. Though we do not see much of her life in CPS, she delivers some heartbreaking moments full of the bitterness she feels for the situation she has been forced into. Forest Whitaker, though he takes the mentorship role of Billy in his attempts to get back on top, does not get a fully developed character that makes us feel any attachment to. He appears partway through the movie with all the cliches of your average filmic boxing trainer and his backstory is hardly explained so we wonder why he has any sort of relevance to Billy’s situation.
As mentioned before, Southpaw takes a bunch of different elements from the greats and tries to tie them all together into a cohesive film. It has the downfall of a great fighter like in Raging Bull and his attempts to regain his glory; the underdog aspect of Rocky; the spectacle of The Fighter; and the unfortunate circumstances and loss of everything of Cinderella Man. Some of these elements work well together, but it just doesn’t allow it to be its own film. The pacing is skewed at times, especially in the rushed climax where it steals from Rocky to give us a training montage and then an immediate cut to the big fight. Another issue is that one of the most important issues raised in the film is never actually resolved, making us wonder if they forgot to include it or if it even mattered in the first place. Yet, the moments where Southpaw feels original are in its intense emotional interactions that leave you drained, and its final fight scene which is shot with some excellent cinematography.
Getting into the ring with Southpaw you will be able to read the punches and catch its pattern pretty quickly. There are some surprise punches here or there, but without Gyllenhaal and a few impactful moments, it would be a fight that ends in a knockout within the first couple rounds. The bell has rung on this fight, and the judges are calling it a draw.