The one-two punch of Fuqua and Sutter delivers a film that’s more than just a rock ’em, sock ’em throwdown. (Though the Horner/Eminem score/soundtrack collaboration helps keep the adrenaline flowing.) Fight film fans will love the attention paid to The Sweet Science, while ac-TOR film fans will love the man-vs-himself/up-again-from-nothing plot. Grade: A-
Hello, and welcome to Awards Season! Oh, you thought it was still Summer Blockbuster-palooza? Well, not if you’re going by the current crop of grade-A dramas and documentaries hitting theaters right now. Love & Mercy, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Dope and Clouds of Sils Maria are just a taste of the awesome that have been hitting the big screen since the snow melt. (Mad Max: Fury Road serves both masters, blockbuster and awards bait, and does so admirably.) Southpaw is one more thinkpiece in among the explosions and superheroes, but the combination of brilliant acting and incredible fight choreography will, like Fury Road, please blockbuster and best-of fans.
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a fighter at the top of his game. In fact, he’s the lightweight champion of the world. Not bad for a kid from a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage. His wife Maureen (“Mo”, played by Rachel McAdams) pleads with him to take a break from fighting; Billy tends to go all-in during his matches, getting almost as good as he gives. When Billy’s next challenger Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (played by The Strain‘s Miguel Gomez) insults Billy’s wife, punches fly outside the ring. A shot is fired…and Billy’s world is forever changed.
Needless to say Billy doesn’t take it very well. Mo’s words — “when that bubble pops they’re all gonna scatter like roaches” — sound like a premonition as his life spirals out of control. In the aftermath of tragedy, Billy loses his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to Child Services, his home to the mountain of debt he knew nothing — and until it hit, cared nothing — about, and his will to fight to his crippling grief. But as that’s just the start of our tale, Billy decides he wants to try to fight again, in order to get Leila back. Enter Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a street-gym trainer who’s reluctant to take on a pro fighter. Their bond, along with Billy’s struggle to regain Leila’s trust, drives the film.
There are a few subplots that flicker just out of sight, and though I would have liked to have seen them fleshed out a bit more, at a little over two hours Southpaw couldn’t have handled the excess. The most tantalizing is the relationship between Billy and his manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent, a slithering delight in this role). There are many times where Mains pushes Billy and Mo towards yet another round of fights “thirty million for three fights!”, even when it’s obvious that Billy can’t take much more constant battering before serious damage knocks him out for good. There’s also a hint that Mains has done some shady business with Billy’s finances, and simply doesn’t have Billy’s best interests at heart.
I’m sure Sutter wrote a backstory on Mains, and I’d love to read it. 50 Cent plays Mains as if he knew that kind of person IRL, and perhaps he had. Mains is every successful person’s nightmare; a man who doesn’t care what bridge he burns down in order to make himself successful. Even the bridges that brought him success in the first place. Southpaw gives a tantalizing peek into this character, and it’s a pity there wasn’t more.
Then there’s Leila’s case worker Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris, 28 Days Later) whose bond with Leila is simply accepted rather than fully written. Again, time constraints yada yada. But at the film’s climax these two are extremely close, and I’d have liked to have seen how they got there. Because as with Mains, I’m sure there’s backstory there.
However, this film does do an excellent job fleshing out Billy’s wife Mo, and McAdams delivers a lived-in performance that made me forget about Mean Girls and The Notebook as Mo begged her husband to forget about taunts and take her home. McAdams and Gyllenhaal have a great on-screen chemistry, as they do with Laurence.
Speaking of, Kurt Sutter’s magnificent work on Sons of Anarchy and The Shield is echoed in Southpaw. Sutter’s gritty, unflinching look at people who are barely holding on serves to lend gravitas to the film. So does his Shakespearean bent; there’s definitely a whiff of Iago in 50 Cent’s money-hungry Mains.
And it’s no secret I love Antoine Fuqua’s work. The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen, Training Day…he does an excellent job combining high-octane ammo fests and in-depth performance pieces. So naturally, a Sutter/Fuqua combo is a match (no pu intended but let’s roll with it) made in heaven. As these two tend to attract top-notch talent, Southpaw‘s cast is able to dig into the tale and deliver top-notch performances. And it doesn’t hurt that the fight choreography is simply stunning. Because there’s a whole lot of fighting in this flick. A whole lot. Smakdown city, in fact. Could Southpaw have focused a bit more on drama and less on jab-punch? Sure, but it wouldn’t have had the same electricity.
Let’s not forget the killer soundtrack. Rob Bailey & The Hustle Standard’s “Beast” opens things up, Eminem’s “Phenomenal” pumps up the obligatory training montage and lifts it up. To cap things, the amazing “Kings Never Die” (with Gwen Stefani) pumps folks up at the end credits, keeping the buzz going as folks leave the theater. But the whole soundtrack is pretty awesome.
Though Eminem executive produced the soundtrack, Southpaw is dedicated to James Horner, who died in a plane crash last month. Apparently Horner so loved the idea of the story, he not only did the score for free but paid his crew out of his own pocket. Now that’s a real life world-class champion right there.