For the past half of a decade, concussions and athletes’ health have pervaded discussions about sports, with professional leagues introducing new safety measures in order to ensure that their athletes remain healthy. Sadly, part of these discussions has been the long-term effects of sustaining multiple concussions and other similar injuries, and how those effects have altered the lives of some our favorite athletes and their loved ones, who are often left to pick up the pieces. While concussions and other injuries are not a guarantee in involvement with contact sports, one sport is more damaging than others.
Now, I do not mean to use this review as a soapbox to criticize the sport of boxing. I may not be a fan, but I can appreciate the sport for a number of reasons. Like any other sport, boxing requires not only physical strength and prowess, but also a high degree of mental discipline. I do like how the short rounds allow for changes of strategy outside of the fight and can give boxers enough motivation to swing the fight in their favor. And to a certain degree, I appreciate how willing these athletes are to lay their bodies on the line fight after fight.
Besides, as a hockey fan who loves a good brawl between two burly men with less teeth and scruffy beards, it would be rather hypocritical of me to condemn the sport in the first place.
The fact remains, however, that boxing and other mixed martial arts cause more brain injuries than any other sport, and can lead to some devastating long-term effects. During the first act of director Antoine Fuqua’s latest feature, Southpaw, it seemed like he would be looking at the sport with a critical eye without completely attacking and reviling it. Additionally, it seemed like he would make these examinations through the lens of alpha-male personalities and the toll such a physical sport could take. All of the pieces were there for an incisive sports drama about athletes’ health, but then the film makes a few missteps and hampers itself down with many of the genre’s conventions.
In Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy ‘The Great’ Hope, the reigning Light Heavyweight champion with an astounding 43-0 record. He has fame, success, glory, and lives a wonderful life with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). After winning the Light Heavyweight championship at the film’s opening, Maureen expresses her worry that how Billy fights will only result in negative outcomes in the future, and convinces him to retire while he is still the best. But anger remains an issue for Billy, and when a rival boxer keeps taunting him at a charity event, he starts a bare-knuckle brawl that ends when Maureen is accidentally shot and killed.
That exact moment is the film’s turning point, when it turns away from the promise it showed in scenes prior and walks the path of every other sports drama. After this moment, and some other negative, reactionary decisions Billy makes, he becomes that archetypal phoenix character who must rise from the ashes, make amends for his mistakes, and prove his worth as real champion by the film’s conclusion.
But what is equally as frustrating is that, even after this pivotal scene, the film had plenty of ingredients to keep itself from walking that traditional path. After Maureen’s death, the many negative consequences Billy incurs, and when Child Services declares him unfit to raise Leila, the relationship between he and Leila begins to deteriorate. He does everything he can to regain her love and trust, but often comes up short. This could have been the center of an emotionally effecting family drama, but the inclusion of cliché training sequences and other instances of dreary melodrama in between reduce these moments to further reason for Billy to become that phoenix character sports films know all too well.
Part of the blame must go to screenwriter Kurt Sutter, who makes his feature film debut as a screenwriter, having lent his pen to FX television series The Shield and Sons of Anarchy. Not to say that he wrote a bad script, but I will lament the fact that it had the components to be something better. But then, we must look to Fuqua’s directing, as well. While I could never doubt Fuqua’s capabilities as a director, it seems that since he directed Training Day (2001), he has been riding off of that film’s success and popularity. With Sutter’s script, Fuqua’s steadiness does reveal his veteran qualities in a good way, but the intimacy he shows toward the subject matter often makes the film feel calculated in its approach, as the emotions of some scenes come across as heavy-handed.
But for however manipulative the film may appear, there are a few genuinely effecting moments where Fuqua shines. First of all, moments of tension between Billy and Leila are pretty well executed. The film may be making no secret that it is actively trying to evoke my sympathy for these two characters, but I do sympathize with them. Additionally, for however few boxing scenes there are, they are constructed very well, with quick editing and intimate shots that combine to heighten the – forgive me – punchy character of each bout. As cliché as rooting for the underdog may be, it feels good from time to time, especially when such great talents are at your disposal.
Undoubtedly, why Southpaw partially succeeds is due to its incredibly gifted cast. First of all, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an expectedly terrific performance as Billy Hope, and his commitment to the character’s numerous emotional swings is well on display. I’ve long known Gyllenhaal was a talented actor, but between the slimy sociopath Lou Bloom of 2014’s Nightcrawler and now Billy Hope, the troubled boxer with a heart of gold, his versatility is even more apparent. Oona Laurence, who played as the title character of Matilda on Broadway, turns in a convincing performance as Billy’s only daughter, and both Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams are solid in their respective roles.
Overall, Southpaw is fine for what it is, but its performers, and a few shining moments from its creators, elevate it out of mediocrity. This truly is a film meant for those who love their underdog stories, and all others need not apply. I would not be surprised if Gyllenhaal were recognized for his wonderful work, but we shall see where his performance stacks up against others this coming Oscar season. There is something inside many, if not all of us that loves a good comeback story, but they are best in moderation.