Review of Southpaw, Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the first actor I would cast in the starring role of a film about a boxer, but his acting chops are on full display as he bulks up and grinds it out as boxing champ Billy Hope in Southpaw, the latest offering from director Antoine Fuqua.
His opponent is the upstart boxer Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), a true antichrist of a foe from which the film’s inciting incident stems. At the beginning of the story, Billy has completed the last in a long string of victories to become the undefeated World Light Heavyweight champion. Miguel is thirsty for a challenge, so much so that he descends to the most despicable insults. He suggests Billy has never been hit by a man, and threatens to “f*** his b****” (meaning his wife). (MINOR SPOILER) A fistfight ensues, and Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is shot and dies. Billy goes into a tailspin. His finances are in shambles. He turns to drugs and drinking, and soon loses his only daughter to the custody of the state. Destitute, despondent, and estranged, Billy turns to the only skill he has and the one place that can make use of that skill – a gym.
Forest Whitaker steps admirably into the role of Billy’s reluctant trainer and mentor as Titus “Tick” Wells. Both in the ring and out, he teaches Billy a better path – one that eschews fighting out of anger in favor of rolling with the punches. Or to use the popular phrase: he emphasizes floating like a butterfly over stinging like a bee.
Southpaw has all of the violence and bravado you’d expect from a boxing film, as well as moment of poetic power, such as when Billy’s “Father” tattoo on his forearm becomes clearly visible as he sits with his daughter in Child Protection Services and tries to win her back. Or the bright young boy Billy takes under his wing for a time at Tick’s gym before the brokenness the ghetto claims him. The training scenes won’t become as iconic as those, say, in the Rocky films – though of course that’s an impossibly high standard – but they almost feel expected because it’s a boxing film so of course you need a montage with the two fighters training.
What really makes the film worthwhile is that it tells the story of a man who learns to grow up. Billy is an interesting character because he was raised in the foster care system, and while that toughed him up for the rigors of boxing it isn’t something that he has overcome as a man. He has gone from rags to riches because he happened to be good at taking punches – lots of them. This got him everything one could want from an earthy perspective: a beautiful wife and daughter, a huge home, some good friends, and fame and applause. Maureen, however, was always the one making his decisions for him. He had so much, but he lacked the vital attributes that truly make a man – things like leadership, responsibility, and wisdom.
Southpaw thus offers us some insight into the nature of celebrity culture, and why so many prominent figures seem prone to self-destruction. When you’re good at a thing that society just so happens to value – acting, singing, or, in this case, boxing – the other areas of life just sort of fall into place. Who needs to be careful when money when you’re bringing in millions? Who needs to worry about making friends or having plenty of parties to go to? Who needs to make any life decisions at all? There are agents and contractors (and in Billy’s case, spouses) for that sort of thing.
But what happens, the film asks, when the smooth path becomes winding and rocky? What happens when tragedy strikes – when the spouse or the agent or the money goes away?
To quote Switchfoot: “It’s when you’re breaking down with your insides coming out. It’s when you find out what your heart is made of.” When Billy Hope first takes to the ring in Southpaw, it appears he has reached the pinnacle of his career – of who he is. But that sort of superficial success is a fleeting illusion, as Billy learns, and if you try to define yourself by it, it will always fail you in the end.