Southpaw

(MA15+) Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams

As the current boxing Light Heavyweight world champion, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has come to a crossroads. The sport has taken a toll on his body. He has sustained an eye injury that forces him to take the advice of his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and seriously consider whether retirement is his next career move.

During a charity event, a verbal altercation with a rival turns to a series of violent acts that has tragic outcomes. Billy’s desire for revenge starts him down a path of self-destruction through the use of alcohol and drugs. During this vulnerable stage of his life, he attempts to hold onto his life style, sanity and daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). A series of events leaves him suspended from boxing, penniless and having to turn Leila over to Child Protective Services. During his downward spiral, Billy must find a way to sober up and get Leila back.

His solution is to go back to the only option he knows, the boxing ring. First, he works as a janitor in a gym, but gets to know the trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker). After getting his life back on track, Billy convinces Tick to become his personal trainer and eventually help him to prepare for a bout with the man who he credits with leading to his downfall.

Southpaw is a familiar boxing tale of riches to rags to redemption. Billy Hope must reach deep within himself to find the man he needs to be for his daughter, and also to rediscover the champion that he had been to the world as a boxer.

 

Two men pummelling each other in a ring for money has been a storyline since the inception of moving pictures. It provides a brutal backdrop to the human experience at its most visceral level. Besides the original Rocky or Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, these stories of boxers tend to be elemental and predictable. Southpaw is in the hands of director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), so there is an expectation he will rely heavily on the performance of his lead actor to win over the audience and pull the story along.

Was Fuqua able to achieve this goal? It is a split decision. Jake Gyllenhaal proves he can carry a film and channels his method acting prowess to make the character, Billy Hope, believable and vulnerable. Gyllenhaal always seems to be on the verge of acting greatness, but super stardom seems to allude this acting journeyman. Fuqua surrounds his lead actor with a stellar cast that give the potential depth for a ground-breaking film. Forest Whitaker effortlessly steals any scene he’s in and is convincing as the flawed, but inspirational trainer. Also, the impressive young actress, Oona Laurence, shows her acting abilities and has the potential for a long career.

But, even with all of these key acting strengths, there is something missing in Fuqua’s corner. It is not the thespian talent, but the overdone storyline. The story can be compared to the punching bags in Tick Wills gym. Like those punching bags held together by tape and on the edge of falling apart with each punch, Southpaw‘s script feels like it is past its prim and has been overworked. While there are enough original components to make it entertaining, there are not enough to lift it up off the canvas as a run-of-the-mill boxing film.

As Billy is trying to lift up his own life, he begins to develop a strong bond with Tick. As a mentor and trainer, Tick becomes the voice of reason and reluctantly leads Billy down the path to redemption. During one of the more poignant scenes, they consider a tragedy that impacts Tick’s gym in Hell’s Kitchen. Tick evaluates the suffering that occurs in his life — and in the lives of his boxers — and says, “All I can think is that God must have a purpose for all of this.”

This is one of the more endearing scenes in the film and it does open the door to one of life’s paradoxes.

If there is a God out there, why does he allow bad things to occur and is there a purpose in it all? Southpaw may be a well-worn story of a boxer’s life, but it does provide a great opportunity to consider why the life that each of us has been given can be bittersweet at times — but it also can have a purpose.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

1. What does the Bible say about boxing?  (1 Corinthians 9:26, 2 Timothy 4:7)

2. Does this life have any purpose? (Jeremiah 29:11, Ephesians 3:8-12)

3. What does this life have to offer? (Ecclesiastes, The gospel of John)

 

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger

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