The genre of fighting movies, especially ones centered on boxing, have always been emotionally charged stories about overcoming the odds and having everything come down to one last fight. It makes for great entertainment, and some of my favourite movies actually fall under this category; Rocky being a classic that I love, and Warrior is an underrated treasure. Southpaw follows in line with Jake Gyllenhaal portraying Billy Hope, a champion boxer that has already risen from nothing to become one of the best fighters in the world. The film then follows Billy's struggles as everything he loves is taken away from him and he has to face the toughest fight of his life.
The plot of the film is obviously not one that is wildly original, much like most fighting movies, but it is unique to see this type of film pick up when the protagonist is already at the top of his profession. Billy is the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world, and everything in his life seems perfect until tragedy strikes and his wife, played by Rachel McAdams, is killed. The famed fighter must now face his battle with grief, which is not made easier when his daughter is taken away by child services. Given these circumstances, Southpaw is obviously a very emotional film, and it relies heavily on Gyllenhaal's performance to sell the trauma that his character has endured. Unsurprisingly, Gyllenhaal nails this. He portrays Billy as an absolute trainwreck of a man with ease, but the parts I really enjoyed of his performance come when he is in the ring, as Gyllenhaal becomes completely terrifying. He has a dangerous fighting style that is based on him getting beat up pretty badly before relying on his anger to overcome his body and dominate his opponents. The ferocity of Billy comes off as so believable that you will probably be scared of Gyllenhaal for the rest of the film.
As this type of film has been done time and time again, Southpaw should be trying to separate itself through its plot, performances and directing. While its plot is pretty good and it's performances are great, it then comes down to Antoine Fuqua's directing abilities to really sell the film. Keeping in mind that this is the same man that helmed the terrific film Training Day, my expectations are high when it comes to Fuqua's work. That being said, Southpaw is directed just fine, with flashes of brilliance really saving it from being too bland of directing. These flashes of brilliance mostly come within the fighting scenes, which of course are necessary to nail in a boxing movie. The fights are presented with great choreography and have fantastic stylistic qualities that highlight Gyllenhaal's terrifying nature. However there is a slow pace to the film after the first twenty minutes or so, and portions of the film are too mundane in this regard. Between the flashes of brilliance, Southpaw is made up of routine montages of training and the presentation style of Billy's fight outside of the ring is pretty standard. While this isn't Fuqua's best effort, he still manages to put together a solid emotional film.
The foundation of Southpaw is built on cliché story elements and features a too familiar formulated approach to a tired genre. Carrying the film out of mediocrity is the one-two punch of the solid performances, led with terrifying execution by Gyllenhaal, and Fuqua doing a good enough job in making the film emotionally moving enough to be memorable. There are still things that could have been improved upon in Southpaw, but the end result is a good flick for fans of fighting films or people that want to be scared of Jake Gyllenhaal, instead of just really creeped out after watching him in Nightcrawler.