365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

26Jul/150

Southpaw (2015)

History probably will not remember this because he just pissed earning an Academy Award nomination for the first performance and may again just miss out for this one, but the physical transformation from Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as sickly, twisted reporter Lou Bloom in 2014's fantastically crafted Nightcrawler to the lean, mean, fighting machine Billy Hope in 2015's Southpaw is remarkable. As people watch either, or both, of these movies in the future, I think they will fail to remember that these two movies were filmed back to back in his career. But aside from how he changed the physical look of his body for each of these roles, his acting performance in each of these films might be the two best in a career that continues to hit all the right buttons, save for The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. What I'll see first about Southpaw is the less you know going in, the better off I think you will be. So if you haven't seen it, I will list my overall score of the film here and I would suggest not reading anymore until after you've seen the film or if the surprise factor isn't something that you are interested. I will alert you when I add spoilers to this review. I would give Southpaw an overall score of 87.5/100.

I did not know much about the film other than what I saw from the previews until I listened to a Gyllenhaal radio interview on ESPN Radio. I learned that there was a twist in the movie and that it occurred very early. I never would have guessed the twist and threw the trajectory of the entire movie. You learned at that moment that you this "boxing movie" was about to go in a completely different direction. The movie starts with Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) preparing for a match. He has a record of 42-0 and is the undisputed junior middleweight champion of the world. He's got his headphones blasting music to pump him up. He's get his hands taped. His tattooed body is lean and muscular. His abs look like he could be the cover model of Men's Fitness. He exudes confidence. Maureen (Rachel McAdams - Midnight in Paris, The Vow) plays his wife. Dressed in a magnificent dress that highlights the assets of her body too, we wonder at first if Mo is just a trophy wife. It doesn't take us long to learn that she certainly is not. There is a deep, committed, loving relationship between the two that has spanned some 20 years. Together they have an eight-year old daughter named Alice (Clare Foley - Sinister, Win Win). Mo and Alice mean everything to Billy. Billy has earned tens of millions of dollars through his career, but he'll be the first to tell you that all he does is fight. Mo makes all the decisions for him, for her, and for Alice. It doesn't take very long to realize just how important these two foster children are to each other. And of course with every boxing movie, you need at least one villain. Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Miguel Gomez - television's The Strain) serves that role here. Miguel is an up and coming Colombian boxer who just wants his chance against Billy and is willing to do whatever is necessary to get his fight. To Billy's credit, he's willing to fight Miguel wherever and whenever, but it is his manager Jordan (a very convincing 50 Cent) who tells him the time is right because the money isn't right. The first 30 minutes of this movie are riveting and, while you don't know exactly which road this movie is going to go down, you are excited to be part of its ride.

The middle of the movie was a little clunky and allowed my mind to drift. I thought about other boxing movies and were this movie was likely to finish when compared to them. Despite how into it I was for the first 30-40 minutes, I convinced myself at that point that regardless of what happened, that it would not outrank Cinderella Man. I started thinking about the Rocky movies (this movie had did have similarities to Rocky II). As much as I enjoyed the Rocky movies (especially Rocky IV), outside of the 1976 original (which was a masterpiece), the other movies in the franchise were utterly unrealistic (especially Rocky IV). If I break Southpaw into increments of thirds, I would say that the first third felt very realistic, the final third felt somewhat realistic, whereas the middle third could probably have used some fine-tuning that, despite the tremendous Training Day,  a director slightly more accomplished than Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun, Shooter) could have cleaned some of this up. Now I am a fan of most of Fuqua's movies (except maybe The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen), but I think Southpaw had the potential to be one of the best films of 2015 that a director with more experience of really tying up loose ends could have done something with. Let me further explain. To do so, I will have to do so with spoilers.

***Start of Spoilers***

I felt that the movie derailed for a bit after Maureen was killed. I worried that it would never be able to right itself and got even more worried when Forrest Whitaker's (Panic Room, The Crying Game) character showed up. For as good an actor as Whitaker is, I wondered what he would be able to add as a boxing trainer for a down and out boxer. I felt that the "redemption story" has been overplayed...especially in sports movies...especially in boxing and football sports movies. But Whitaker's portrayal of Tick Wills was very even keel. He didn't upstage, or even attempt to upstage, Gyllenhaal. This was Gyllenhaal's vehicle all the way and much like Billy needed Tick to help him accomplish what he needed to accomplish, I felt like Gyllenhaal needed Whitaker to really land his performance as one of the top 10, if not top 5, of the year. Whitaker reeled Gyllenhaal in just like his character reeled Billy in. But it was the period after Maureen's death before Billy connected with Tick that was uneven.

Billy's grieving over Maureen was what you would expect it to be after a man loses his love of 20+ years. However, where was his support system. As a world boxing champion, he's going to have people on his beck and call. In fact, this was shown. But after she is shot and killed, we are supposed to believe that a crowd of over 100 people couldn't identify Maureen's shooter. We are then supposed to believe that he is just okay with the investigation not figuring out who the assailant was. We are then supposed to believe that Billy is just going to be able to continue his life without any sort of resources to help him through this trauma. On top of that, we are supposed to believe that he is ready to fight again in the midst of all of this trauma? He was in no shape mentally, emotionally, or physically to compete in the match that stripped him of his belt, but I think Fuqua and writers Kurt Sutter and Richard Wenk needed something more to send him deeper into his depression and strip him of all of his wealth, his home, and Alice, the only other person in his life who matters to him. This man had more anger issues than anyone else you'll see on screen this year yet he seemed to allow a lot of this to happen without so much a fight. I admit he was beaten up (pardon the pun) and not himself, but I think this would bring out his anger even more. A guy whose wife described him as "getting off" when he gets hit over and over in the ring is just going to lie down as his life is ripped from underneath of him? And then while he's going through his free fall, we are expected to believe that he can just stroll through society and not be identified as a major celebrity. It was A LOT to assume.

But as clunky as the script was, I thought that Gyllenhaal was able to bring the audience through it. This film was just a little over two hours. That's not a lot of time to bring a character from the pinnacle of his life down to depths lower that any one person can go through alone back and then back for a chance to recapture his glory. Because you are trying to do so much, it would be really easy to rush parts. While I do think it would have helped to know how much time passed between a few of the scenes, it wasn't completely necessary in the end. The point from where Maureen died to the movie's final fight could have been 6 months or it could have been 2 hours. We aren't explicitly told so we aren't sure. It is safe to assume the time period was closer  to 6 months. And, also, it sort of had to have been because it would have been really hard to age Alice two years. And the development of Gyllenhaal's character that time period worked for me. There were enough scenes (some short, some long) intermingled with his emotional and mental transformation that made it work. And for as much doubt as I had about Trick (if for nothing else because of when he was introduced coupled with the fact of what could he offer that we haven't seen in other boxing movies), Whitaker made it work and showed, once again, why he has an Academy Award (The Last King of Scotland) in his trophy case.

***End of Spoilers***

Through the first seven months of the year, I think I've seen two movies that will end up in my Top 10 of 2015. They are Ex-Machina and Southpaw. I do not doubt that there are other good/great movies that have been released (i.e. Mad Max) that I haven't seen. But we know the crop of great movies are released at the end of the year. I have high hopes for 2015. It has been about what I have expected so far. In terms of Southpaw, I think fans of heavy dramas with rich characters would love this film. I'm not comparing this movie to Foxcatcher (which I recommend but a lot of people hated), but it does have that same element of darkness. Southpaw isn't nearly as slow or maddening as Foxcatcher, but if you go in thinking that it's going to have tons of boxing, you'll be disappointed. Much like the movie The Wrestler didn't have a ton of actual wrestling scenes, Southpaw doesn't have a ton of boxing scenes. At one point, I was starting to really call into question if I was going to call it a sports movie at all. But then the pace quickened and we got our lead character back in the ring.

There are great boxing movies out there. Cinderella Man, The Fighter, Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Hurricane, and Girl Fight all come to mind. An absolutely fantastic movie that is MMA and not boxing, but one that is a definite must see is Warrior. Despite its flaws, Southpaw ranks right up there with the best of these. Gyllenhaal's Billy Hope is a character you root for whereas Gomez's Escobar is a perfect antagonist. The excellent acting (including Foley who may have given the best performance of any child actor in 2015...she was just great), fantastic cinematography, great score, and efforts to make up for the film's defects allowed me to get past some of the less realistic parts (i.e. when Billy says to Jon Jon, "Thanks for taking me in" two minutes before Jon Jon drops him off at the gym and says, "If you need me for anything, you know how to reach me". Huh?). There was just a clunky, undisciplined middle stanza of the movie that, if fixed, could have taken this movie from great to excellent.

Plot 8.5/10
Character Development 9.5/10
Character Chemistry 8.5/10
Acting 9.5/10
Screenplay 7.5/10
Directing  8/10
Cinematography 9/10 (possibly the most realistic boxing fight sequence I've seen on film)
Sound 10/10 (James Horner's final score + a great song written for this movie by Eminem + the most realistic in-ring boxing sounds)
Hook and Reel 9/10 (grabs you early...fades in the middle a tad...but brings you right back in...I was on the edge of my seat for the final fight and really was uncertain how the fight would end)
Universal Relevance 8/10
87.5%

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