The tradition of the Hollywood boxing movie seems to be off the ropes and on the rise again.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy “The Great” Hope and dons the guise of seasoned pro-fighter well. His physical appearance is as believable as the combat. Action in the ring is fluid and visceral. Plenty of punishment taken and dolled out. That being said, the more vicious blows are landed out of the ring.
Truly, the events within the Hope family are the most forceful punches of the film. Family loss and how it reverberates to the other family members is where the film is most effective. Rachel McAdams as wife Maureen Hope and Oona Laurence as their daughter Leila Hope steal the screen in every scene they are in. They provide lively performances countering Gyllenhaal grizzled face and mumbling, nearing punch-drunk dialogue delivery. They do well to display that the fighter and by extension this film, are only as powerful as the support they have. This includes Hope’s eventual trainer Tick Wills, played by Forrest Whitaker. Whitaker does well here as lion-tamer to Gyllenhaal with a performance that detours from the trainer with infallible wisdom type that is usually the case. The cast turn in their best and there are moments of the script where it appears it may just transcend typical boxing movie fare and begin to ask the serious questions of why. Unfortunately for the audience, the film doesn’t put together the finishing blow to make this happen.
As the story goes strictly in boxing terms it is actually quite similar to Rocky 3. Boxer top of his game, challenged by an abrasive up-and-comer which sets off a chain of events that sees the once king of the hill brawler learn basic defensive techniques from a former foe, or in this case the trainer of a former foe. Indeed the boxing themes are contrived, it’s all stuff we’ve seen before. A revenge plot is clumsily stacked on, with unlikely betrayals forced in at the end in a rather shameless low-blow attempt to clearly define the lines between wrong and the righteous.
Fans keeping current with the real-life sport of boxing will enjoy the set dressings. HBO Boxing subscribers will recognize commentator Jim Lampley and former pound-for-pound boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. who provide fight commentary during the film. The always classy Jimmy Lennon Jr and Diamond David Diamante appear as ring announcers. Tony Weeks is referee for the main bouts. Even veteran promoter Lou Dibella makes a cameo appearance. Former champion and active boxer Victor Ortiz has a memorable scene. Immediately believable as a plucky gym fighter both hesitant to train with the champ, but eager to show he can hang. Between Expendables 3 and now Southpaw, Ortiz is proving himself to be a capable if underused action actor.
This is not an “out of time” boxing film. Director Antoine Fuqua does his best to ensure the trappings of modern life date this film firmly in our time. There are plenty of real life corporate sponsors like HBO given screen time. Scenes are given to smart phones recording the fight action. There is even a text message bubble that oddly makes a single appearance center screen.
Ultimately though, this is a something of a traditional “macho-man learns to temper his instability after a devastating loss” story with just a little more of an emotional beat above what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers boxing movie theme. Like Hope’s fighting style it clubs and hammers the points with a few dekes and surprises throughout. A bit crude and obvious, yet enjoyable and mostly effective.
3 out of 5 stars.