A ‘champion’ of a movie! Move over Cinderella Man, and make way for an incredible story of prestige, loss, overcoming challenges, and triumph. Southpaw is a surprisingly fantastic movie with dynamic characters and an incredible story. Follow one man from being on top of the world to self-destructive behavior that costs him nearly everything. Ordinarily, I do not give sports-related movies a second thought because I don’t follow any particular sporting event; however, had I let this one pass me by, I would not have had such a great cinematic experience. To be honest, it’s not screaming ‘early Oscar nom contender,’ but there is the off chance it could get the recognition. Never having attended a boxing match before, I am unsure of the adrenaline that rushes through the bodies of the audience. But, if it is anything like what I experienced during the third act of the movie, then I can totally understand why sporting events, such as boxing, can be quite the visceral thrill.
Southpaw is about champion boxer Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his triumphs and tragedies. Holding the Light Heavyweight title, he is on top of the world in his professional boxing career. Furthermore, he has a beautiful and loving wife Maurine (Rachel McAdams) and an adoring daughter Leila (Oona Lawrence). After he decides–well, after being urged–to take time off from the boxing circuit, his agent is hell-bent on getting him back in the ring and sign a contract with HBO. Finding it difficult to ignore the fame and emotional high of the eyes of the world being on him, Billy turns down the opportunity to focus on his family. Following a speaking engagement at a New York City children’s home (the home both he and his wife grew up in), a brawl breaks out in the lobby and Maurine is shot. Devastated, Billy takes out his anger on nearly everyone except Leila. But, one drunken night, after he crashes his car in the front yard of his palatial estate, the court finds him unfit to be a parent and sentences him to rehab. Having lost his wife, and now his daughter, and all of his possessions, he must rebuild his name and career in order to win back his daughter despite the odds being against him.
The movie opens on a gritty scene during the championship for the boxing light heavyweight title. This intense opening is quite indicative of the entire movie. This is the type of movie that will rock you down to the very core. In many ways, the story is told through various perspectives. Believe me, it’s mostly objectively shot; but, there are definitely times that the camera gives us a subjective or point-of-view perspectives and other times the subjectivity is implied. This is an important element to the narrative because, from what little I know about boxing, it is a sport that is personally intense and highly affects the boxer physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unlike other sports which are not nearly as violating or invasive, the boxing ring is one that requires amazing stamina, discipline, and courage. Unfortunately, throughout his career, Billy was never one to focus on his defense. And this is a character flaw that transcends the ring into his life. On the subject of the coverage of the boxing matches, the cinematography is crafted so that it truly feels like you have been transported from the cinema into a great ring-side seat. This greatly increases the realism of the movie and grittiness of the plot.
Not surprising, the main focus of the plot is on Billy’s character development. But, not unlike Billy, both his daughter and his new trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker) also go through their own respective developments. In many ways, Leila and Titus embody some of the very same struggles and challenges that Billy is going through. Although Billy made decisions that lead to his fall from fame and glory, the tragic death of his wife affected him in ways in which no one is ever prepared emotionally. The writers and director of this movie were very successful is transferring the pain of Billy, Leila, and Titus from the screen into the minds of the audience. However, despite the fact that there are many elements that I appreciate about the movie, I do feel the Billy’s recovery time should have been a little bit longer and taken him to darker places in order to truly get to the very core of what his character must have been feeling and to better support the more inspirational aspects to the narrative. He went from rock bottom back to the top a little too quickly.
One of the refreshing parts to the movie was the inclusion of humor here and there. Due to the dark nature of the subject and the mental anguish experienced by Billy, it would have been all too easy to allow the low places of the film to be filled with utter despair and anger, but I was quite pleased that the writers included a little bit of humor sprinkled throughout the narrative. Wasn’t over the top, or tasteless, or thrown in there, it felt very natural and added to the believability of the story. In fact, the dialog as a whole, was well-crafted and allowed the characters to become real for the audience.
If you enjoy movies about overcoming obstacles, metaphorically returning from the dead, and the feeling of being on the edge of your seat, then you should definitely check out Southpaw. Even if you’re like me, in that you don’t typically watch sports-related movies, you should still see this fantastic story with excellent acting and character development.