REVIEW — “Southpaw”
“Southpaw” is going to be the surprise critical hit of the summer. The lackluster trailers gave it that kind of generic revenge/underdog feel, but in the end it’s SO MUCH MORE. I was blown away, not only by the performances, but by the writing and direction. Almost everything about this was perfect, and that makes it one of the best sports related films of our time (before this “Warrior” had been my favorite).
In case you haven’t seen the trailer, which I advise at this point you DON’T DO, here’s a quick spoiler free synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) must fight against his nature to become something more for his family. That, based with the knowledge that the writing and direction are on point, is all you need to know when going to see this to get the full experience. This isn’t your typical man vs. man film, as the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person, played amazingly by Jake Gyllenhaal. Also, there isn’t too much gratuitous violence as it’s all necessary and realistic to the sport.
A strong cast working together usually leads to an amazing picture, and this is no exception. Jake Gyllenhaal has officially made the leap from weak young actor to strong lead actor. His performances in “Prisoners,” “End of Watch,” “Nightcrawler, “Enemy” and now this all prove that he is THE actor of our generation (move over Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper). He embodies this character, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. He makes you feel every single emotion he is going through, and that went over well with the audience (there were tears abound in my theater). Rachel McAdams also has a brief, but very meaningful, role, and it sets the entire story in motion. Oona Laurence DOMINATES as Billy Hope’s daughter (and looks suspiciously like one of the kids from “Despicable Me”), and delivers probably the best child performance I’ve seen in years. The ensemble continues with Naomi Harris, Forest Whitaker, Miguel Gomez and even Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson giving excellent performances (though Fiddy still isn’t the best actor).
My only two qualms with the movie are that Naomi Harris (“The Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, “Spectre”) seems to have had much of her role left on the editing room floor, and that Miguel’s character was turned from a sympathetic adversary to a generic bad guy. I understand that the film needed to be edited for time, keeping it at a nice 2-ish hours, but Harris appeared to have a major character with almost no development. She was showing up in some of the most important situations, but with no real explanation as to why. Miguel play’s Gyllenhaal’s rival/nemesis in “Southpaw,” named Miguel Escobar, but writer Kurt Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua took what could have been a sympathetic ‘villain,’ and turned him into a generic bad guy by having him talk smack about Gyllenhaal’s wife. In the first act they have Escobar showing regret and sympathy for what transpired to cause Gyllenhaal’s heartbreak, but threw all that away in one moment during the climactic fight scene, instead of building on it to give us something different. It reminds me of what happened with the bad guys in “Run All Night” that made it so disappointing.
The latter is only relevant when you realize that writer Kurt Sutter has written a story in which the protagonist is the antagonist, and must fight himself, so to speak, throughout the plot. The story is actually NOT about revenge, at all, but about acceptance, perseverance and growth. The climactic fight is not about beating his nemesis, but about finishing his ‘transformation’ into a new man, so painting it in the final act, for no reason, as this good vs. bad thing really throws off everything they had built towards. That being said, the writing is still top notch (except for this glaring issue I’ve pointed out), and rivals some of the greatest sports films to date. I’m saying it; “Southpaw” is better than “The Fighter” and any “Rocky” film you can think of.
As far as direction goes Antoine Fuqua proves that he is more than a generic action flick director (“Olympus Has Fallen” “Shooter” “The Equalizer” “King Arthur”). This has been a passion project that he has been working on and developing for years, and it becomes clear that there was a deeper meaning in finishing this to him than any of his other works. How he brought everything together, the performances he got out of his actors, and the tone he set for the story makes this his best film to date (yes. it beats “Training Day” by a landslide).
“Southpaw” is the first movie in a long time (since “Warrior”) that makes me feel the need to buy a ticket, and see it again in order to support it. The direction, writing, action, drama, characters, dynamics, interactions and emotions set this apart from just about anything else you’ll see this year. It is the first clear contender for best picture/writer/director/actor (yes, all four). Despite the editing job they did on Harris’ character, and how they forcibly made Gomez’s character into a generic villain, this is a gripping and powerful film from start to finish. 4/5