“… despite it feeling a little trite at times it did win me over.”
Yesterday I watched Southpaw and I absolutely loved it. I just want to get this out of the way and say that if you have any interest in seeing this movie, even if you don’t have an interest in seeing this movie, stop reading this review right now and go watch it. I’m not going to be talking spoilers in this review, but nevertheless Southpaw is a movie that benefits from a completely blind viewing.
So Southpaw is a movie about a boxer, but the way that the story is presented is kind of unorthodox. Well, not really unorthodox, but unusual. You see when it comes to sports movies they all centre around the same thing: the main character trying to be the best. They have to go from being nothing to being everything. This is usually accomplished by starting off when this character is nothing, but every once in a while you’ll get a movie that starts when the character is already on top of the world, then beat them down to nothing so we can get the traditional story. Southpaw is the latter. The hurt that the character of Billy Hope has to go through before the movie decides that it is time for him to get his due is astounding. Watching life give him the worst beating that he has ever suffered is something that is so painful, but at the same time so beautiful. This beauty comes from Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. As Billy Hope, Gyllenhaal manages to channel a man that is beyond broken. We see this amazing inner struggle as Hope’s life is falling apart around him and he just wants to succumb to it, but at the same time he has to stay strong for his daughter. And that’s just the big picture stuff, Gyllenhaal is also great at the subtleties in his performance as well. Billy Hope has a unique fighting style, one that involves his getting punched in the face and head repeatedly until he gets mad enough to kick the shit out of his opponent, and of course with that would come some, let’s say “complications”. Billy Hope isn’t “punch drunk” yet, but he’s getting close. The way that Gyllenhaal plays Hope is amazing because you can just tell that something is off. He slurs his words, he mumbles, he has trouble focusing; all of these things add up to a wonderful picture that Gyllenhaal is able to paint with his performance. Southpaw also features a great performance by Forest Whitaker, but this praise comes with a caveat. Southpaw is not a new movie; it features a story that we have seen a thousand times before. I’m fine with this because I’m of the mindset that there are no new stories, just variations of stories that have already been told a thousand times before, but still it is something I have to acknowledge. Even though I loved the story of Southpaw, I have to admit that some of it feel into “cliché” territory; a large part of this is with Whitaker’s performance. Now maybe that’s not the best way to put it because I really did like the way Whitaker played his character, but everything surrounding his character was essentially a cliché. Grizzled boxing coach who is rough around the edges but has a heart of gold, scared to get mixed up in the big times for one reason or another but overcomes this fear because he cares so much for the person he is training. It’s straight out of every sports movie ever. That being said I did like it, and despite it feeling a little trite at times it did win me over.
Another thing I really appreciated about Southpaw was the fight cinematography in the movie. Especially during the film’s very first fight, the way the film immersed you into the experience was beautiful. It really made everything stand out, and highlighted how beautiful and intense boxing can be. Now unfortunately Southpaw peaked early in this regard, because later on we start to run into a few issues with the way the action in the ring was shot. While early on the film managed to capture the beauty and intensity of the sport, the later fights in the film felt almost too intentionally disorientating. You could absolutely argue that this was the film’s way of immersing you even further into the mind of Billy Hope, but that didn’t come across as the intention. The cuts were quick and rather confusing, and to even further the confusion the film decided to use a weird mix of POV shots which were cool, but just added to me deciding to wait until a wide shot to figure out what the fuck was happening. Really the biggest issue I had with Southpaw was that, in hindsight at least, the ending seemed to be a little rushed. This is probably due to a few things: 1. The movie had to make sure the character of Billy Hope was completely broken before it could rebuild him and 2. The actual “plot” of the movie comes out of fucking nowhere, so the movie doesn’t really start until about 20 minutes in. Both of these reasons are actually why I love the movie in the first place so I’m not exactly mad that the ending felt rushed, but it is apparent especially when looking back on the movie.
Overall Southpaw is one hell of an experience. Sure the story is a little familiar, but it’s different enough that I was engaged throughout. And the phenomenal performances (especially by Gyllenhaal) make up for any of the writing’s shortcomings.
I give Southpaw an A