SOUTHPAW. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, and Naomie Harris. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated MA 15+ .Restricted. (Strong violence and coarse language). 124 min.
This American film tells a story of human spirit and determination triumphing over weakness. A prize boxer is forced into retirement by tragedy, and he recovers his resolve to reach the peak of his sport again. "Southpaw" (the film's title) is a particular boxing stance for a left-handed boxer.
Undefeated title-holder, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives with his childhood sweetheart wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and his feisty young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), in New York. City. He loves both of them deeply. In a World Light Heavyweight title fight, which Billy eventually wins, Billy is injured and he retires from boxing at the insistence of his wife. A short time later, after speaking at a charity event, a brawl breaks out when Maureen is insulted by a young ambitious boxer, Miguel (Miguel Gomez), just as she and Billy are leaving. In the ensuing chaos, Maureen is killed accidentally by Miguel's brother, Hector.
There is a trail of institutional confinement in Billy's life that lies behind his boxing prowess. Following the death of his beloved wife, he drifts into alcohol and drugs. Facing poverty, rage and depression, Billy goes in search of Hector for revenge. He pulls back, but when he injures a referee at an exhibition match, he is suspended from boxing and almost dies in a car crash that he causes wilfully through drunkenness. As his life spirals out of control, he loses custody of his daughter, Leila, who is put under the care of a Child Protection Services officer, Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris). The shock of what he has lost saves Billy from complete despair, but Leila blames him for what has happened.
Billy finds work cleaning a gym that is managed by a crotchety ex-coach,Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker), who he targets as a potential trainer. Billy wants Titus to train him for a fight with Miguel, and a personal tragedy motivates Titus to agree reluctantly to help Billy face Miguel in the boxing ring. One of Titus's students is killed by his abusive father and the tragedy moves Titus to understand Billy's emotional situation a little better. The scenes between Titus and Billy are edifying. Each learns lessons in life from the other, and they bond together in friendship and mutual trust.
When the big fight-night comes, Leila watches the fight with Angela, and in the last round, Miguel reminds Billy of Maureen's death at his brother's hands. Infuriated, Billy manages to control his temper, narrowly wins the fight, and is finally reconciled emotionally with his daughter.
America frequently produces boxing films of good quality, and this is one of them. While the movie does not rise to the heights of Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980) - a brilliant film about a boxer who deliberately takes punishment in the ring as penance for his insecurity - this is a boxing movie that sustains its dramatic tension very well, and it is directed sensitively by Antoine Fuqua. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a commanding, fiercely physical, performance as the beleaguered Billy. Muscled up for the part, he is almost unrecognisable, and Rachel McAdams provides excellent acting support as his wife.
The boxing scenes in the film are photographed and choreographed convincingly, but they project strong, physical aggression that is grim, bloody, and at times almost too vivid to watch. As with most boxing films, this film delivers a lot of male violence and it depicts brute muscular strength very forcefully. However, the film is also an emotionally compelling drama about a person who drags himself up from oblivion to regain self-respect.
This is a film that communicates dramatically and effectively strong emotional themes. Despite the film's occasional sentimentality, some signs of cliched scripting, and a predictable plot-line, Gyllenhaal shows again just how good an actor he is. However, the final scenes are deeply problematic. They show a very young girl barracking unashamedly for her father, when he is being brutalised in the boxing ring, and brutalising someone else in return.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 20th., 2015