Antoine Fuqua’s spirited Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Southpaw is the first hotly anticipated boxing drama to hit our screens this year. Gyllenhaal, not afraid to go into full-blown transformation mode for a role following last year’s creep-tastic Nightcrawler, this time packed on the muscle to portray fallen champion Billy Hope in this 21st century Rocky-like sporting flick.
After the tragic death of his wife/manager, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), following a hotel brawl, light heavyweight champ (43-0, baby!) Billy’s life quickly spirals out of control. Racked with guilt and regret, the rags-to-riches success story comes crashing down around him as he loses his title, his home and his beloved daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). In true Balboa fashion, the former world champion – after firmly hitting rock bottom – straps back on his gloves and, with the help of new trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), looking to get his life back on track.
The Training Day helmsmen doesn’t veer off track with this genre-loyal spectacle, but gives it a very modernised, cool-looking feel. With all the glitz and glam that surrounds it, particularly in the film’s earliest scenes, it successfully epitomizes the excessive (and ultimately fickle) world of modern day boxing, as money-hungry boxing promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) – the true villain of the piece – attests to.
Yet this is far from style over substance. The poor-kid-comes-good tale is anything but original, yet Southpaw’s emotional pull feels far from forced – in fact, it’s the strongest feather in its blood-spatted bow. Gyllenhaal’s transformative performance – like the love-child of The Italian Stallion himself – is striking, yet it is the daddy-daughter relationship between the Oscar nominee and the fabulous Oona Lawrence which produces genuinely tear-inducing moments of pure guilt-free sadness.
There’s questions to be asked, and certainly several are left unanswered, but as a spectacle Fuqua’s sporting fare delivers big. It’s too safe in scope to beat off the standard boxing film comparisons, but despite its been-there-got-the-upper-cut approach and the ever-so predictable rise-from-the-ashes ending, its stylishness, matched with its emotionally-laced story and well-executed boxing sequences, raise it far above the Grudge Matchs of this world.
Like most movies of its ilk, Fuqua’s film will forever live in Rocky’s shadow – yet thanks to an extremely dedicated leading performance and some shiny-looking, excitable fight scenes, Southpaw doesn’t deserve to be forgotten any time soon.