Southpaw is the new film by Antoine Fuqua (who’s best known work remains 2001’s Training Day) starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Victor Ortiz, Oona Laurence, and Rachel McAdams. This is a film that’s been highly anticipated by me (and from what I’ve read and heard from others – professional critics or otherwise). I’ve been a BIG Gyllenhaal fan for a long ass time and his recent string of films (End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler) have made him surpass anyone’s expectations from him. When photos were released of his transformation, I was even more pumped to see this film.
Unfortunately, this film does not match up to the list of films I mentioned above (among a few other recent films). It’s overly long, very baggy, riddled with cliches, and quite melodramatic. Were it not for three very strong performances, this would have been one of the biggest disappoints of the year for me. Since it does boast those performances though, it’s just a regular disappointment – and it’s more a disappointment because the film doesn’t live up to them rather than the film being bad.
It should come as no surprise that the highlight of the film (and really the only reason to actually see it) is Gyllenhaal’s performance. Like every role he’s worked on in the last several years, what he does he is simply incredible. I’m not sure how long the gap was between when he completed Nightcrawler and when he started this film but I’m just wowed by his transformation. But it isn’t simply the exterior, physical transformation that makes this such a powerful performance – it’s also the emotional and mental shifts. As boxer Billy Hope, he’s a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a brute (his fighting technique early on involves him being punched in the face over and over again). In terms of dialogue (and delivery of dialogue), Gyllenhaal keeps things pretty standard to what one might expect of a boxing film nowadays – lots of swearing, lots of mumbling, and a lot of monosyllabic answers to questions. As great as this performance is, the whole time I was watching this I was just thinking that it felt like Gyllenhaal was doing his best Di Niro.
The other two performances worthy of mentioning are Forest Whitaker as Titus “Tick” Wills, the ex-boxer who trains Billy back into shape, and Oona Laurence as Leila Hope, Billy’s daughter. I felt like both of them were really good actually and brought more to their roles than what was probably written in the script. Whitaker in particular I was impressed by simply because, in recent years, I think it’s become kind of standard to see Whitaker in movies of varying quality where it feels like he’s kind of just showing up for the paycheck. In this movie, for whatever reason, it felt like he was really invested in it. He was also the only character in the film that demonstrated any sense of humor throughout. As for Onna Laurence’s performance, for an actress so young, she really brought the heat emotionally here. There’s a reason why her scenes with Gyllenhaal are the most impactful and resonant of the entire film. For those wondering about Rachel McAdams here, she’s barely even in it and is really given nothing to do here.
Now it has to be said that this movie was written by Kurt Sutter, who writes for Sons of Anarchy (a show I have never watched); he says that the script was originally intended to star Eminem. Inspired enough by his music to write this script, the character is not a million miles away from what one could imagine Eminem playing. What’s done here is mostly surface. There isn’t a whole lot of character explored here, for whatever reason. We get the most cliche story possible, with pretty much every beat being taken from other movies that have done this stuff better. It has to be said that there wasn’t a single thing that happened in here that I didn’t expect to happen – every beat was easy to predict.
Then there’s the case of Fuqua’s directing, which is average at best in my opinion. He doesn’t really show a whole lot of personality in his films, to me they usually just come across as crime dramas or action movies that happen to take themselves way too seriously. My problems with his directing here and the same problems I’ve had with most of his movies – his films are way too bloated and serious (sorry to be redundant) for their own good. This movie is over 2 hours long and it really didn’t need to be. There was a weird subplot about a young kid in the boxing gym that Whitaker’s Tick owns introduced and then dropped. It didn’t really reveal that much about either Whitaker or Gyllenhaal’s characters when I think about it now. It really could have been exercised from the film entirely and there really wouldn’t have felt as if anything was missing.
But probably my biggest problem with this film is the camera work. In the boxing scenes I thought, for the most part, the filming worked. There’s a bit too much of a reliance on shooting in-the-ring stuff with go-pros but aside from that all the frantic camera movements and zooms I thought worked. I don’t watch boxing (nor do I know anything about it as a sport) but it looked enough like what I might see on those fighting specials that I understood what they were going for. It’s really everything else that bothered me though. The cinematography on this film looks terribly amateurish – and this coming from a guy who’s won an Academy Award in Cinematography (Mauro Fiore). The whole time I was watching this, I kept thinking to myself if Fuqua had hired a DP who might have been new to feature films or something – but I guess not. There are so many obvious shots here in terms of composition which bothered me as well as the shaky nature of the filming itself. I don’t have a problem with handheld photography (it’s used a lot in films today for better or worse) but the nature of the shakiness just came off really badly here – like there were times when I was shaking my head in response to the camera work.
With all that being said, I would still recommend people go out and see this movie for the performances. Harvey Weinstein has been saying that Gyllenhaal will be nominated this year for his performance in this film – and it wouldn’t surprise me because he brings a lot to a role which is written quite blandly and without a lot of depth. But the rest of the film isn’t up to his or the other two performances I mentioned (which are also deserving of praise).