If you like drama, punching, Jake Gyllenhaal, or watching a person lose everything, then this film is for you.
Billy Hope is the best boxer in town, he has a rough attitude, but with a warm cuddly centre. Unfortunately this anger gets him into a situation that ruins his life, sending back to square one and now he has to learn from his mistakes and fight his way back up to the top – not only for himself, but for his family. Yadda yadda yadda. You saw the trailers, we all know what happens. If you think you got the whole plot from that trailer you were right.
However, while in the broad strokes this is another Hollywood paint-by-numbers film, when you get to the details there’s a lot more substance than you expect. The dialogue is just realistic, actual conversations, and completely took me back in the first few scenes, given how standard the film looked from a distance. This dialogue is masterfully handled by the cast, with each of them being on their top form. Gyllenhaal continues his amazing streak of quality performances, McAdams is loveable, and Whittaker enjoyable. Surprisingly the young Oona Lawrence, Billy’s child, also manages to stand out amongst this talent, and it’s easy to see that she understands what was going on with the character, rather than just reading the lines put in front of her like a lot of child performances.
Despite these strengths though, there are still issues with Southpaw. The performances for example, as great as they often are, are slightly let down by some characters. Bits and pieces of plot are established, distracting from the film at times, and then dropped without any further acknowledgment, leaving nothing but the essential story being concluded – while celebrity parts are included, evidently for their name more than their talent. A one minute scene from Rita Ora that generally confuses, because why would they use her for such a bit-part? And a performance from 50 Cent as Bad Businessman #1 is similarly bizarre, with his role most likely being salvaged simply due to a few clever tricks by the director and editor. Every take with him in either has several midline cutaways, or is shot entirely from behind him, no doubt to allow them much tweaking in post as possible, which I’m sure they didn’t regret.
The direction and cinematography are also flawed in places. While the director’s knack for building up dramatic action set pieces is obvious – as seen in the boxing matches themselves, wherein Fuqua pulls the camera back, showing us each and every punch that hits – when it comes to characters talking, his style choices don’t work so well. He almost exclusively employs close-ups during dialogue, so much so that it makes the interspersed establishing shots actually an enjoyable breath of fresh air. A similar tactic has been employed by Tom Hooper in the past, where he appears to tell the cameraman “Get closer, we can’t tell how good their acting is unless we’re ten centimetres from their face!” and while it helps the cast in some respect, it does not help the film at all.
Besides my nit-picking, the film is genuinely enjoyable, and does enough well that it stands out above the generic Hollywood crowd. By the end you’re caught up in the action and each punch draws you further in, even if you know what the result will be by the final bell.
Southpaw (2015), directed by Antoine Fuqua, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors, Certificate 15.