In a world saturated with classic boxing films, it’s hard for a piece of modern cinema to break the mould. Southpaw, the latest film to try its luck in-ring, brings a very modern update on the aesthetics of the boxing world, whilst also sticking to the beaten track of tradition. To properly put it in its place, a comparison to some of the previous pictures in the same vein is needed. Awards selections, cult followings and critical acclaim have often been seen attached to the bruised pulps of these films, making of many a career and sending the likes of Martin Scorsese and Christian Bale to levels only the Heavyweight Champion of the World could rival. Let’s see if the attempts of Jake Gyllenhaal, Antoine Fuqua and Southpaw will render a similar fate.
Southpaw opens in-ring as our arrogant, chaotic and somewhat psychotic protagonist is sadistically pummeled in the face. Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is the World champ, and the opening bout reeks of importance. Southpaw gives the early and late in-ring action the full glamour feel. The athletes are portrayed as prize-fighters, with the glitz and the glamour of the crowd only enhanced by the swirling HBO cameras. This take on the big money matchups is a modern, current update of the huge battles of the Rocky franchise, in which you are given a closer-than-first-row seat to the action.
The in-ring action is no-holds-barred, as the two fighters fight with reckless abandon, sacrificing their bodies in order to succeed. The close-ups accentuate the violence of the competition, just as in Million Dollar Baby. Standing face to face with Jake Gyllenhaal as his eye swells with blood is a striking image, taking the close up knockouts of Hilary Swank to a darker level.
As the story progresses however, this PPV-styled action takes a backseat as reality almost-inevitably sets in. But, the cameras stop flashing and all Gyllenhaal is left with is an empty room and spots on his eyes. The story soon takes an emotional turn, as the trailers have oft shown, as a death wrecks the idyllic trench Gyllenhaal had dug himself. As with any decent boxing film, the sport must only come as a secondary feature and thankfully it does. The real story of Southpaw is one of family and tragedy. Hope’s money dries up, sending him back to his roots, whilst the documentary style of direction reinforces this modern-day take on the street-shaped drama of Raging Bull and Rocky.
Southpaw references the self-destructive protagonists so associated with the world of boxing (Raging Bull, The Fighter, Rocky) in a way that is less inventive of the classics before it. No such film can play the underdog story as straight as Rocky without falling flat, so the family and mental degeneration of Gyllenhaal’s Hope echoes, in a less sinister manner, DeNiro’s Jake La Motta. Gyllenhaal continues his form, importantly making you forget you are watching a face you know and totally selling you to his hard-nosed, naive character. For the sake of our peace of mind, we also are gifted a sense of redemption and catharsis for Hope in the story’s climax, something that was brutally denied to us by Eastwood’s multiple Oscar winner.
Yet, after navigating the murky waters of these features, Southpaw jabs somewhere in the middle. The film’s straightness in its ‘Fall, Rise & Redemption’ story leaves it falling outside the top echelon of boxing films. The development is somewhat predictable, edging too close to those before it. The fact that Gyllenhaal’s coach is a seeming fusion of Eastwood and Freedman’s Million Dollar characters is too obvious to miss, even with one blind eye a piece. The revenge tale the film climaxes to lacks the monumental atmosphere of Rocky, whilst it employs a jarring pace of change between emotion and violence.
Southpaw is a very decent boxing film, but it struggles to break the shackles of legacy. The might of Jake La Motta, Maggie Fitzgerald, Rocky Balboa and the Eklund brothers unsurprisingly overwhelms Antoine Fuqua’s title shot, but Southpaw should still be regarded as a bold contender.
Header courtesy of moviesinthephilippines. Images courtesy of boxingtonight, Hollywood Reporter and theforce.net.