Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: Southpaw

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Sports dramas - especially boxing pictures - come equipped with their own set of cliches and Antoine Fuqua's "Southpaw" is certainly a slave to those well-tread cliches. The film follows the fall and resurrection of a troubled boxer who came from the street, only to return to it and then attempt to rise to glory once more. But Jake Gylenhaal (as said boxer) and Forest Whitaker (as his trainer) are so good in the picture that the film's cliched storyline is mostly forgiven.

As the movie opens, Gylenhaal's Billy Hope (how about that name?) is the lightweight champion of the world and has a wife (Rachel McAdams) and young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), who adore him. His wife attempts to convince him to drop out of the sport or at least slow down after a fight he wins leaves him bruised and battered.

But during a speaking engagement, he is taunted by an up and coming Colombian boxer named Magic Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who insults his wife, leading to a scuffle during which a member of Escobar's entourage accidentally shoots and kills Hope's wife. The fact that no arrests are made at the scene is only one of the sequences that stretch credibility here.

The death of Maureen (McAdams) causes Billy to go on a downward spiral that leads to his home being repossessed and his daughter taken away by child services. So, in the tradition of many boxing films before this one, "Southpaw" follows Billy's humbling, which includes his taking a janitorial position at a gym, where Tick Wills (Whitaker) trains young men to keep them off the street.

As a means to get custody of his daughter, Hope decides to clean himself up and fight again, but this time with the help of Tick. Meanwhile, his previous manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) has - of course, since this is a movie - taken to managing Escobar, who continues to taunt Hope, seemingly only to provide the film with a villain and give Billy the incentive to win the fight at the film's end.

Gylenhaal gives a fully committed performance in the picture that is both physically and emotionally impressive. Following in the lead of Matthew McConaughey, Gylenhaal has undertaken his own renaissance that began two years ago with the terrific and underrated "Prisoners" and has since included the creepy thriller "Enemy" and, now, "Southpaw." Even if his latest picture doesn't measure up to the two Denis Villeneuve films in which he starred, his performance sure does. And Whitaker delivers some of his finest work in years as Tick, a man who has his own set of woes.

So, while "Southpaw" shows us nothing new, its performances elevate it slightly within its genre. And the fight sequences are well choreographed, gripping and bloody, especially the final bout between Hope and Escobar. Even though we're never actually surprised in which direction "Southpaw" goes, it entertains all the same.

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