Let me start of by saying that if you expect to see anything other than the typical formula every boxing film since Rocky follows, then don't waste your time reading this review or your money watching the film. But if you want to see an actor at that peak of his talents, one of the year's best ensemble cast deliver and a director working with material that fits his style, then please continue reading and definitely get out this weekend to see the film.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy "The Great" Hope, a ferocious fighter who fights better when he's angry, who is seemingly on top of the world: he has an undefeated record, is the champion, has a beautiful wife and daughter and all the money he could dream of. But after losing his wife (Rachel McAdams) in a tragic accident, Billy starts to unravel and has his boxing license suspended for one year after head butting a referee during a bout - and this could not come at a worse time as Billy was informed that his money well has run dry. Struggling to not only stay afloat, but to stay sane, Billy loses his daughter Leila (played brilliantly by the lovely Oona Laurence) to child protection services. With no end in sight, Billy turns to the cantankerous Tick Willis (played by a return to Oscar form Forest Whitaker) to train for one last fight - and for redemption. What follows is your typical fall and fight to get back up boxing film formula....and I was perfectly ok with that.
While the ensemble cast is one of the best of the year, this is Jake Gyllenhaal's film through and through. I will go on record in saying that Gyllenhaal is the best actor working right now. His latest string of performances that include End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler and now Southpaw is the best string of performances I've seen from any actor - ever. The diversity of the characters, the depth he has given each of them and how he virtually disappears in every role, both physically and emotionally, have left me speechless every time I stepped out of the theater. Jake Gyllenhaal is "that dude" right now because everything he touches turns to gold. You can't keep your eyes off of him in this film - he's magnetic. The screen vibrates when he explodes with intensity and simmers during the film's intimate moments.
Rachel McAdams, in her brief time on screen as Maureen Hope, is the ying to Gyllenhaal's yang. She provides the stability for Billy and Leila, makes sure Billy is taken care of and puts his best foot forward and, most importantly, is Billy's support system during his bouts - sitting ringside locking eyes with him, imploring him to finish his opponent off, all with just a look. Naturally, once this is gone, we see why Billy begins to unravel. Forest Whitaker delivers arguably his best performance since his Academy Award winning role in Last King of Scotland. Whilst nothing we haven't seen before from Burgess Meredith and Clint Eastwood before him, Whitaker is good enough to separate himself from those characters and make Tick WIllis stand on his own. A soft-spoken but strong willed man, Tick's calm demeanor washes over Billy, showing him that what made him good in the ring doesn't necessarily work outside it. (Sound familiar?)
But the actor who really shines alongside Jake Gyllenhaal is the young and awfully talented Oona Laurence. Other than small roles in some short films and guest appearances on Orange is the New Black and Law & Order: SVU, Oona is a relative newcomer, and someone that is here to stay. She plays her Leila with such a raw vulnerability and believability, that it was heartbreaking. Wanting so badly to be strong for her father, but also to mourn her mother, Oona plays Leila exactly as you would expect an eight year old to be. She was never over the top and never understated, instead hitting all the right notes between grief, anger, hate and love - arguably a character more conflicted than her grief stricken father. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Naomie Harris round out the cast and deliver fine performances as a fight promoter and case worker, respectively.
If there was ever a director I wanted to see direct a boxing drama, it's Antoine Fuqua. From Training Day to Tears of the Sun to his latest, The Equalizer, Fuqua is one of the better examples of current directors fitting into the Auteur Theory where every film he has made has the Fuqua style all over it - gritty, in your face and relentless. Teaming again with frequent collaborator Mauro Fiore, together they put you right in the action with some unique camera angles, even having the camera "punched", and some of the best, and smartest, usage of POV shots I've seen in some time. Fuqua brilliantly portrays what BIlly is experiencing visually through said POV shots, pulling focus and forcing the camera tight on Billy's face and giving the audience no choice but to go on this downward spiral with Billy. Fuqua also delivers some great choreographed fight scenes and an exhilarating training sequence, complete with said camera angles, punctuated by Eminem's perfect fitting 'Phenomenal'.
But perhaps most important, Fuqua never loses sight of what the film is really about, and that is Billy and his love for his family. No shortage of intimate moments, the relationship and love between Billy and his wife and daughter is believable and developed enough to sympathize with Billy and make the audience go on this journey with Billy and cheer him on his road to redemption. Nothing about it felt forced, rushed or not believable, which is key to the film's success. Boxing provides the backdrop to the film, an almost metaphorical therapy session for Billy - his therapist is his trainer and his gloves do the talking.
If you want a solid drama with fantastic performances and some pretty great and in your face boxing sequences, Southpaw is for you. Just don't expect Southpaw to go ahead and reinvent the boxing drama, because you will be greatly disappointed.
This is Jovanni, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off!