Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) really knows how to rally his audience. His movies haven’t always been the best, but they are generally good in being just the right amount of entertaining. This is no different with his newest film, Southpaw. Taking his action skills into the boxing arena, Fuqua excessively prolongs the melodrama, but balances it with pretty good arena action in an average film that is carried heavily by the solid performances of the cast.
Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the boxing lightweight champion. Having braved a childhood of living in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, Billy has reached the height of his success, supported by his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oora Laurence). After not accepting a challenge by another undefeated boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), the two throw down at a charity banquet that ends in tragedy when Maureen is shot and killed.
Angry and spiraling into a a grief-stricken hole he can’t dig himself out of, Billy hits rock bottom when his account reaches empty and his home and daughter are taken away from him. Seeking help from trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him get back in the game and secure him a job so he can get his daughter back, Billy begins climbing the ladder toward success once more.
The film is a melodramatic redemption fest. Nothing more, nothing less. Its entire plot hinges on drawing the audience in to believe that Billy has suffered far more than is warranted and redemption and success are what he deserves after what happens to him. Fuqua plunges into the emotional trauma pretty aggressively, inciting a reaction on our end that would not have been there honestly if not driven by the fantastic performances by Gyllenhaal, McAdams, and Whitaker.
Gyllenhaal sets up a man who is angry, hungry for being the best, but loving toward his wife and child. His grief after Maureen dies is deeply felt and Gyllenhaal’s emotional range is impressively superb and his expression of it is the main draw for his character. Believable even when the rest of the movie may not be. McAdams, though unfortunately only in the first half hour of the film, pretty much lays the foundations for the rest of the film’s events. Whitaker, his presence somewhat a relief to all the angst (though he does have his share), shares some nice moments with Gyllenhaal and gets to flex his talents in a meatier role than we’ve seen from him in a long time.
Ultimately, Southpaw is a melodramatic, angst-ridden movie with great performances (although there isn’t much to Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s character), a good and action-packed boxing finale, but with little else in between. Some aspects of the plot drag on for too long, there isn’t enough time given to the training aspect which would have built up the ending better, and time is wasted on unnecessary parts. However, Southpaw will still entertain you if you’re willing to let the emotional aspects of the story draw you in.