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Movie Night – “Southpaw' step-up in boxing movies (July 29, 2015 issue)

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about a boxing movie? I’ll wager most people will think about “Rocky.” It’s only natural since it’s the best boxing movie ever made. “Southpaw” is not “Rocky.” It’s grittier, dirtier, and hopefully there won’t be six sequels. (The upcoming film “Creed” about Apollo Creed’s son is the sixth sequel.)
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on top of the world. He’s a boxer, the light-heavyweight champion of the world! He has a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and a great daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). He lives in a mansion. His friends and fans adore him, as long as he’s the champ.
As in life, appearances can be deceiving. Billy, never to be confused with a Mensa member, is literally getting the sense beat out of him with each fight. He walks and speaks like the brain-addled boxer that he is, someone who has taken too many punches, endured too many beatings in the name of his craft. In the opening fight of the movie he suffers a significant injury to his left eye.
The injury to his eye is so significant that Maureen wants him to take a break from fighting. Billy and Maureen met as young orphans and have been inseparable since. Maureen is his manager and the guiding force in his life. So when Maureen thinks Billy needs a long period of rest and relaxation, Billy reluctantly agrees. Until tragedy strikes.
Of course, there has to be a villain. Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is an up-and-coming boxer, an arrogant hot-head who dogs Billy at press conferences trying to goad him into scheduling a fight. When the two boxers encounter each other at a charity dinner, a scuffle erupts and tragedy ensues. Without giving away too much of the plot, Billy soon finds himself at rock bottom. No more money, mansion, fame, or popularity. Everything he ever had is ripped from him. All he has left is a night janitor job at a local gym, where (surprise) he starts training again with Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to make it back to the top.
There’s something about the sport of boxing that engenders drama on the silver screen. Maybe it’s because in most movies the combat is figurative, while in a boxing movie the two opponents are mano a mano, literally pummeling each other while thousands watch and cheer until one is on the mat and can’t get up again. The only problem with the construct of a boxing career to provide drama is that it’s been done hundreds of times before. Thankfully, while “Southpaw” checks many of the boxing movie clichés, the acting performances alone elevate the movie to a notch above most of its contenders.
The journey that Billy Hope (great name) endures in the movie is heartbreaking. The overriding emotions for most of the movie are sadness and despair. Billy is not seeking revenge, or even really seeking redemption, he just wants his life back. It’s not until he realizes that most of his problems are caused by his own actions that he really starts to become the man he wants to be.
As always, Jake Gyllenhaal is very impressive as Billy Hope. Gyllenhaal transforms himself in body and mind until he is the textbook picture of a punch-drunk fighter who settles every dispute with his fists because he knows no other way. His performance is riveting. Newcomer Oona Laurence is also very impressive in her first major role as Billy’s daughter. She takes Leila from an emotionless automaton to being overcome with grief and longing in a heartbeat. Watch out for her in the future.
Sure, the clichés are abundant. It’s a boxing movie, of course the triumphant climax comes in the ring. But the movie is just different enough and Gyllenhaal’s performance is so spectacular that “Southpaw” is entertaining and a step-up in quality from most boxing movies.
Grade: A-
Rated R for language throughout and some violence.