By James Oddy
The boxing film has had a long and varied career. From the highs of raging bull, the fighter and Rocky to, well, all the other Rocky’s, the genre is having a revival after being down for a long count.
Southpaw is the at the vanguard of a series of new films which will also involve a Roberto Duran biopic and a Rocky reboot, Creed, as well as a follow up to The fighter, the film which kick started this revival.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the ludicrously named Billy ‘the great’ Hope, a former New York orphan who has risen to untold riches via his wild, brawling style. Alongside his is his wife, Maureen, played by the luminous Rachel McAdams and his daughter, Leila played feistily by Oona Laurence.
Billy’s life however unravels due to his lack of self-control in and out of the ring and he finds himself having to figuratively, and literally, pull himself off the canvas to get his life back on track via the help of Titus Wills, played by Forest Whitaker.
The film is a curious one. The performances are uniformly excellent. Whitaker adds a great deal of gravitas and depth to what could easily be a walking cliché and Gyllenhaal and McAdams are surprisingly convincing as street kids made good. Laurence also excels in another role, which, if played incorrectly, could capsize the film.
Another major plus are the boxing scenes, which, whilst fairly absurd in the early going as Hope exhibits a style which would make a drunk at kicking out time blush, actually begin to resemble real boxing matches. It’s refreshing to see a sports film portray boxing styles accurately and use them as an indicator, or lack of, of its main characters personal development and flaws. The fight builds up themselves are also accurate and have an almost documentary feel, and director Antoine Fuqua adds lots of little touches which will appeal to fans of the sport.
There are flaws however. The film hints at dome deeper ideas and themes that are barely fleshed out. The role of Whitakers gym in the community, where it seems to be a refuge from the poverty and deprivation like so many real life gyms, is examined, but only briefly. A sub plot involving one of the kids in the gym is dismissed so briefly and without consequence as to be borderline insulting for the strata of society he’s presumably meant to represent.
Similarly, 50 Cent, convincing in his role as a promoter (probably not too big a stretch for a real life promoter) is teased as being a Don King like figure, yet that too fizzles out and is dropped before the end of the film.
The film does pack an emotional punch (sorry) and should keep boxing fans and non-fans alike entertained, mainly due to the strength of the casts work. It’s hard not to feel however that the film has missed a trick by taking some more interesting turns.