“I don’t train professional fighters,” says “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). “I’m not a professional fighter,” says Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), disgraced former light-heavyweight world champion. Hope has fallen on really hard times – lost his title, his devoted wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), beloved young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), his crew, his house, and his money. What are his chances of making a come-back? Not good, unless he can find a grizzled trainer (like Forest Whitaker) who, despite misgivings, can teach Billy defensive boxing and life lessons that turn Billy around. “Boxing,” says “Tick” Willis, “is like a chess game.” For Billy, that’s a new idea. Billy thought boxing was all about hitting and getting hit.
Can Billy win back his title? Will he bond with trainer Willis? Do he and Leila overcome their mutual grief and anger? What do you think?
Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker lead an excellent cast in this smart remake of “The Champ” (1931), a male weepy with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Gyllenhaal is focused and intense as he was in “Nightcrawler” (2014) and “Jarhead” (2005), transforming himself physically and emotionally for the part. Whitaker is excellent, too, as no-nonsense trainer “Tick” Willis, who changes Billy’s life. Oona Laurence is touching as daughter Leila. Rachel McAdams is Billy’s wife and partner: “The only thing that matters,” she says, “is the three of us.” She, like Billy, grew up, orphaned, in the state’s family services system to which the court sends Billy’s daughter Leila.
Others in the cast include Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Billy’s duplicitous manager Jordan Mains, Skylan Brooks as appealing young “Hoppy,” and Naomi Harris as caseworker Angela Rivera. Miguel Gomez and Aaron Quattrocchi are Billy’s opponents in the ring.
“Southpaw” is a familiar come-back sports story, predictable but compelling. Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter are old-fashioned storytellers – no flashbacks or other narrative tricks. Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams and Oona Laurence bring the story to edgy life. Mauro Flore provides excellent cinematography; John Refoua’s smart editing is sometimes intensely expressionistic so we see the world through Billy Hope’s addled brain. James Horner, who died recently, wrote the evocative music.
Rated R for pervasive language and violence, “Southpaw” runs 123 minutes. I’m not a fan of feel-good sports movies, but this is a good one – gritty and moving performances, accomplished movie-making.
“Southpaw” is a boxing flick,
Predictable and clichéd,
Male weepy melodrama,
Come-back is the take-away.