Southpaw full movie review - Entertaining but fails to be edgy like it presents itself
Sports dramas are not uncommon among film studios. Almost every sport has received some kind of a film rep at some point. The most popular of these events probably would go to the boxing industry.
Much of this was garnered either from actual boxing celebrities like Muhammad Ali or actors who portrayed their character in the ring like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull (1980). Of the boxing films however, the franchise that would go down as the best known would be Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976) series. What worked with Stallone's franchise was how well grounded and retable its characters were. For this film, there's a certain texture that's brought to the table that not many other filmmakers could put on display for mass audiences. A combo of director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day (2001) and King Arthur (2004) and writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy (2008) headed this visual style. And for what it's worth, everything made in this feature shows that everyone was invested in it. It still has its shortcomings though unfortunately.
The story is about the tragic fall and redemption of top-of-his-game boxer Billie Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) who loses his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) after a fatal "accident" during a press conference. Making things worse is that his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) is taken into child protection services. The idea itself has been seen before, but again the presentation to how viewers will see this story may feel different. Stallone's Rocky (1976) had grounded characters; so does Fuqua but he also grounds the very surroundings of the character. Even while Hope's family lives in luxury, the outside world feels gritty and cold. This is that combination mentioned earlier - Fuqua's direction and Sutter's script do a great job at demonstrating just how nasty things can get before anything gets better. That's also not excluding language and violence. Every scene has a much rougher tone to it, giving it that edge that makes it feel like its more adult oriented. Sadly this is where it falls flat in some places.
While it is Kurt Sutter's first screenplay, it is hard not to criticize him for penning a script with such a tough persona and yet following up with a story so safe. Perhaps this is because the premise has practically given everything away before the movie is even seen. When the only turning point in your film for the main character is when a key player is killed off, it kind of sets up the audience to already know how things will end. Everyone enjoys a well-respected return but it's also very predictable. If the loss of Hope's wife weren't announced in the premise, maybe the death would've been a little more of a throw-off than a plot setup point. So the question is, why make a script with a tone so hard edge only to play it safe like every sequel made after Rocky (1976)? Sutter's only other flaw in his script is that after Hope's loss, the subplot of his wife's murder goes unsolved. It's not even mentioned as to if Hope just wants to forget or feels the rematch was enough - but it at least should be mentioned why.
However, besides these clerical issues everything else does work its best to make you forget about it. Jake Gyllenhaal and Oona Laurence have believable chemistry as a young father and daughter. Gyllenhaal definitely goes all out with his tough guy persona and pulls it off. Considering he's gone through multiple transformations for a lot of his films, it's no surprise here. Even for McAdams reduced role, she too is enjoyable to watch. Plus the supporting cast is well worth it. Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent provided good contrasts to the paths Billie Hope could take and whom he sides with in success. Young actor Skylan Brooks also helps bring some development to Gyllenhaal's role. Then there are appearances from Naomie Harris and Victor Ortiz. As for Hope's main antagonist Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), the motivations are very two- dimensional. Although they could have been more developed, the focus was on Billie, not Escobar.
The boxing matches were well staged and look believable too. There weren't a lot of matches for anyone who wanted a lot though. Helping make the fights feel as real as possible was Italian cameraman Mauro Fiore, who frequently works with Antoine Fuqua. Not only does Fiore keep the camera steady and only highlight what needs to be lit, but he also changes the perspective of some shots. For example, the camera will shift from a theatrical lens to found footage (but professionally) where the camera would be either Hope or Escobar's eyes during the fight. Since this involves movement, the camera won't be steady but it does give the viewer a brief minute to immerse himself or herself into the match as if it were a video game. Lastly, the music composed for the final time by James Horner before his untimely passing is not as immediately recognizable as some of his other works, but it still has its moments. The created tunes can move its audience because of the raw emotion the actors use and how the music plays out with solo piano and strings. A good last effort.
It does have a lot to be entertained with considering how believable the acting is, the emotional music, involving boxing matches and inventive camera-work. Yet with a tone that indulges in having less fluff, more rough, gruff, tough and buff, the script shouldn't play it so predictably. The outcome to this film can be seen even before the movie starts.