By Laurie Coker
Finding freshness in a film genre made memorable by films like Raging Bull and Rocky works against most directors, if for nothing more than the “been there, seen that” element. Having an exceptional cast can and does make up for a great deal, and having Jake Gyllenhaal as a leading man in Southpaw saves the movie from doldrums disaster. Working alongside veteran Forest Whitaker and newcomer Oona Laurence, Gyllenhaal offers up a commendable performance, perhaps one of the best of his career.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the Light Heavyweight champion, whose beautiful wife and daughter are his backbone and the reason for beating the odds after having grown up in the foster system in Hell’s Kitchen. When a tragic accident alters Billy’s life drastically, he loses everything – his family, his career and his fortune. He hits rock bottom and after losing his daughter to the system he loathes, he seeks out Tick Wills, a boxing gym owner, who trains street kids in an effort to make a difference. Their relationship takes Billy back to the ring and into the fight of his life, one for which he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Boxing films rarely have riveting plots and Southpaw’s is tepid at best. Bloody, painfully long pugilistic scenes make watching tough, but Gyllenhaal’s captivating performance more than makes up for story staleness. Every emotional moment in the film, regardless of whom he’s across from is mesmerizing, but scenes with Laurence, who plays his spirited daughter, truly tears at the heart. Coming to the big screen from theatre, young Laurence holds her own next to Gyllenhaal. Whitaker is fabulous as usual, and the ensemble cast help to keep audiences engaged. Fans of boxing will appreciate the realism and those, like me, who do not like the sport, still appreciate the cast and direction.
Rated R, Southpaw, will get slammed by some critics for being too pat , and it is, but there are times when one can simply sit back and enjoy the masters of the acting craft and look past faults. I am placing a C+ in my grade book. Gyllenhaal warrants much higher. There are other, far greater films in the genre, but few have a leading man with so much true talent.