Southpaw

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Southpaw
"Ever since Donnie Darko it's been clear that Gyllenhaal is something special, and here he really gets the chance to shine."

Boxing dramas - might there be a way to do them differently? From Rocky to Real Steel, they all basically have the same plot, just with different trimmings. The only question is who will win the final fight, which is as much a fixture as the prom scene at the end of the US teen flick. Occasionally, we get the tragic twist approach instead, as in Million Dollar Baby; and there may be more or less emphasis on corruption behind the scenes, as in The Fighter and Wolf. Southpaw doesn't even try to be different. What it does offer is superb acting from a highly capable cast, which makes its simple plot significantly more affecting.

Jake Gyllenhall, bulked up to considerably more than his usual size, is light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope, at that awkward stage in his career where he's reached the top and the only way is down. Would-be rivals jibe at him about his age, knowing it's only a matter of time until he weakens; and he's impulsive, with a temper, at risk of getting into serious trouble, made vulnerable by his strength. Rachel McAdams is Maureen, his wife and his carer. It's not clear how much of his dependence on her stems from head injuries and how much from his troubled upbringing - we're told they both grew up in state care - but she makes all the decisions, does all the thinking, calms him when he starts to lose it, gives him hope. When he loses her, his whole life falls apart. He drinks, he wrecks things, he's patently unable to care for their young daughter (the excellent Oona Laurence). Within the space of a couple of weeks, everything that made up his identity is stripped away.

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Ever since Donnie Darko it's been clear that Gyllenhaal is something special, and here he really gets the chance to shine, moving away from his usual intellectual characters to give us someone who barely articulate. Billy's instinctive aggression makes for some thrilling fight scenes but it's his vulnerability that gives the film its strength. Laurence makes an effective foil, her character self-assured but facing her own challenges as a child with little control over her own fate. Then there's the ever-reliable Forest Whitaker as a jaded coach training troubled kids to try and keep them out of harm's way. He's the man Billy turns to to try to recover some discipline, and the two end up helping each other to face their demons.

Everything else goes the way you'd expect. There's even a montage, curiously badly scored. The music is wrong in a few places, just poorly coordinated with the action, and Fuqua's direction is not as taut as in his best work, but he does have a lot of visual ideas and there's an emphasis on the graceful side of boxing that Muhammad Ali would approve of - it's not just relying on the ego and glamour of two people battering each other. There's a little too much sugar in places and it's getting difficult to excuse the woman's-suffering-as-motivation-for-male-centered-story trope in this day and age. Southpaw is redeemed by its cast, but a bit more imagination could have made it a much better film.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2015
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Southpaw packshot
Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife.

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writer: Kurt Sutter

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Skylan brro

Year: 2015

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Locarno 2015

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