EXPECTATIONS: A film that is beneath Jake Gyllenhaal’s supposedly fantastic performance.
REVIEW: Jake Gyllenhaal is on a bit of a roll lately, with great films starting from Prisoners to Enemy to Nightcrawler and I remember the time when I was listening to the announcement of the 2015 Oscar Nominations and Jake Gyllenhaal was NOT mentioned as Best Actor for Nightcrawler, I was fucking pissed. He clearly became the character of Lou Bloom that I didn’t even see the actor in the film. And he was nominated over Bradley Cooper for American Sniper? Really? I guess that’s politics for you but if Gyllenhaal gets nominated this year for Southpaw, it is perfectly obvious that it is meant to compensate for last year’s Oscar outrage. But don’t let my opinion fool you, his performance in Southpaw is fantastic, but it turns out my expectations were spot-on when I watched the film. Oh, by the way, DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER FOR THIS FILM! Fair warning. It spoils the entire plot of the film. But to be blunt (, the film is predictable from beginning to end, so stating the warning is kind of redundant. So if the movie is that predictable, is it still worth watching? To paraphrase The Matrix, it is different to know the path than to walk the path. And fortunately, Southpaw is a path well-traveled enough to make it an relatively entertaining experience.
Southpaw starts off with Billy “The Great Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) defeating yet another opponent with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and his manager Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) by his side. His anger issues, punch-drunk attitude and neglect to his family concerns Maureen who tells him to quit boxing before it overcomes him. In a press conference, an opponent Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) cockily proposes a fight and is willing to do so despite everyone’s concerns. That is until one night, a major event happens and Billy is on the brink of self-destruction, losing his wealth, his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) and himself. Looking to get back on his feet, he visits a former boxing coach Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker) to train and possibly fight back to the top.
As you read of the plot, the film is utterly predictable, which isn’t a surprise considering that this film is funded by China (which has no censorship, meaning that every film is for family viewing, but many restrictions persist like happy endings, crime never pays etc). But for the scriptwriter Kurt Sutter, it apparently is a disappointment for many. I’ve never watched Sons of Anarchy, but considering the praise the TV series has received, the script in comparison, is probably a piece of dogshit. But fortunately, the actors put a hell of a lot of effort into their stereotypical roles, that it almost makes it a great experience. Jake Gyllenhaal, who is just as immersive as he was in Nightcrawler, is fantastic as Billy Hope. From his physicality to his speech patterns and his compelling switches in mood (his scene with Rachel McAdams involving an argument and an embrace is touching and uniquely subtle compared to the rest of the film), he gives life to a typical underdog character. The same goes for the other actors, who could play these roles in their sleep. Rachel McAdams engenders so much sympathy and likability in her limited screen-time, that it is getting harder and harder to believe that she played a mean girl in Mean Girls. Forest Whitaker has played many authoritative figures before, and he does well as Tick Wills, lending gravitas and having good chemistry with Gyllenhaal. Hell, even 50 Cent is surprisingly acceptable as Jordan, who’s actually charismatic and not your typical money-hungry manager that these films usually have. But the biggest surprise is Oona Laurence as Leila. She damn near steals the show whenever she shows up. She never feels precocious or falls into the “cute actor” category and creates the most touching moments in the film alongside Gyllenhaal. She’s probably the most genuine and honest character in the entire movie.
With this much acting talent in display, it’s almost a shame that Antoine Fuqua’s direction is incredibly blunt at times. Most of his films have that style of his and some of them work because of it like The Equalizer. But some of his films can suffer greatly because of it, like King Arthur with its overly gritty atmosphere dulling the experience or Olympus Has Fallen with its laughably jingoistic tone. But here in Southpaw, the overly done melodrama is delivered with a force of a sledgehammer, that it makes the audience submissive and waiting for some sort of relief. The direction is so unsubtle that the opponent just HAS to be a person that we hate. Can’t it be just a person that just so happens to be an opponent with a personality? Like Apollo Creed or even Mason “The Line” Dixon from Rocky Balboa? There’s a scene where people are repossessing Billy’s things out of his house, one of the movers explicitly states that they are moving the things for auction. Like the audience couldn’t figure that out from seeing it. It’s not that it spends so much time in melodrama, but that it shows Billy’s downfall so quickly, it barely gives us the time to process. There’s even some storytelling plot holes that come from this swift approach like for example, possible SPOILERS, how is it that there are no cameras at the major incident? Doesn’t the babysitter know that Billy is drunk in the house with a gun? How is it that Billy Hope loses his wealth so damn quick? Even Bruce Wayne losing all his money in The Dark Knight Rises was more convincing.
I just wish that there was more effort in the screenplay and more subtlety in the directing to make this film a true knockout, but with the passionate acting from the talented cast, Southpaw will have to settle with a split-decision victory.
The cast give it their all with their archetypal roles
Unsubtle direction and predictable/sloppy screenplay
Cast:Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris, Rita Ora, Clare Foley, Beau Knapp, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Gomez
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Kurt Sutter