There’s no denying we’ve all seen this play out before. I’m not talking necessarily about the rich history of cinema’s dalliance with boxers.
The Champ, Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer and, more recently, The Fighter are just a handful that come to mind – but the archetypal narrative that is employed by many films, particularly those that feature a protagonist who has a professional sporting career (almost any career for that matter).
Here’s a man who has everything and is at the top of his game, and within moments he loses it all. In order to win it all back, he has to start again from the very bottom. His path is a punishing struggle – a lesson in humility, responsibility and self-control.
Talk about a knockout
Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Gyllenhaal) is the middleweight world champion. His wife (McAdams), a childhood sweetheart, and his 10-year-old daughter are his raison d’être. At a charity event for the New York orphanage he grew up in, Hope succumbs to taunts from an up-and-coming Colombian boxer, Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (a magnificently menacing turn from Miguel Gomez), and the pair become embroiled in a scuffle that concludes with the accidental shooting of Hope’s wife.
Following this, his reputation and his fortunes nose-dive, with supposedly close friends, managers, agents and trainers ‘scattering like roaches’ as his wife had predicted. Worse still, after a drunken suicide attempt, his daughter is taken from his custody and, due to Hope having no immediate family, placed in social care.
Old ropes, new tactics
Should the film be berated for its familiarity? Should it lose points for its lack of originality? Viewers of Larry David’s (creator of Seinfeld) HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm who tuned in to watch the same character embroil himself in similar trouble week after week, in events that play to a strict formula, will know that it’s not always about avoiding a template – but endlessly reinventing how you use it.
That’s an odd comparison perhaps, but one that emphasises the importance of what you bring to that template and how you engage with it over the template itself.
Southpaw (a term that refers to the fighting stance of a left-handed boxer) boasts such an emotionally potent, central performance from Gyllenhaal that on these terms, at least, the film stands comparison with any of the multitude of sporting films that came before it.
Hope’s powerfully convincing connection to his daughter (thanks to an equally incredible performance from young Oona Laurence), further exacerbated by the death of his wife, is tangible. Their separation provides the engine for the narrative. It matters little that we expect he’ll most likely win his daughter back, but the extent to which we become invested in this process, and the full-blooded commitment from the cast, deserve loud praise.
A film of raw power
Prolific director Antoine Fuqua first caught our attentions with 2001’s Training Day, but since then he’s failed to deliver on that promise with a string of films ranging from the mediocre, Brooklyn’s Finest, to the ridiculous, Olympus Has Fallen.
Despite this, he is a gifted director of actors, and while Southpaw’s success will be attributed to Gyllenhaal’s performance, Fuqua’s hand and the flawless cast should be acknowledged. Southpaw’s punch might deliver few surprises, but it hits home with raw power.