I am not a fan of the MMA or UFC, but I do have respect for boxing. My great uncle once fought Muhammad Ali before I was even born, so I appreciate the grace and actual elegance to the sport. It’s more exhilarating to watch than just two people trying to claw each other’s eyes out. To say the least, I was far more interested in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw than I would be in something starring John Cena.
The only thing that concerned me was seeing it written by Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy. Biker gangs are also something that I have absolutely zero interest in, so it comes as a huge relief to say that at Southpaw’s heart is a tear-jerking father/daughter tale of a man who comes close to losing it all before fighting his way back to redemption.
Pro-boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the top of his game, current light heavyweight champion with a 43–0 record. As much as he loves his fights, he loves his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) even more. One night after a press conference, Billy gets into a fight with Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) in a hotel lobby where Maureen winds up accidentally getting shot. Quickly, Billy’s life spirals out of control as grief and guilt take over with only revenge on his mind.
Soon enough, social services has whisked Leila away and Billy winds up claiming bankruptcy after headbutting a ref during a match. Now, Billy must find a way to pull his life back together, begging for a job helping Tick Wills at his gym. Eventually, redemption comes calling when Billy’s former manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), offers him the fight of his life against Escobar in Vegas.
Anyone who has ever seen even a sports drama knows where this is headed. Thankfully, Fuqua provides plenty of hard-hitting boxing, and even harder hitting daddy/daughter scenes to make up for some heavy-handed cliches. Gyllenhaal and Laurence make a killer combo, aided by the setup showing their homelife before Maureen is killed off. The pacing may be a little off during the first hour before the film finally reveals its true colors, but the performances bring the needed gravitas to make it all pay off.
Gyllenhaal is electric as Billy, giving one of his best performances yet. And the biggest reason it works so well is that this is also his least-Gyllenhaal-y performance. Transforming himself physically into a beast in the ring and a doting father out, Billy is a character we come to love by the time the credits role and anyone privy to Kleenex may want to have them handy. While the final fight may not have quite the expected payoff, audiences will still be left cheering.
Gyllenhaal is even more Oscar-worthy than in last year’s Nightcrawler. McAdams was clearly cast to make us immediately smitten with Maureen and Laurence is not only adorable as Leila, but also manages to hold her own against Gyllenhaal. A scene at Child Services is particularly heartwrenching. Sports fans will find plenty to love, along with anyone looking for something a little heavier buried in this summer’s onslaught of special effects spectacles. A colleague asked if it was too early in the year for something from The Weinstein Company, but when it’s this good, absolutely not.