Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Review: Southpaw

World of Blackout Film Review

Southpaw Poster

Cert: 15 / 124 mins / Dir. Antoine Fuqua / Trailer
WoB Rating: 5/7

Okay, full disclosure (although regular readers will probably already know), I don't really do boxing-movies. Nothing personal against boxing-movies, but I don't really do boxing, because I don't really do sport. If you want to watch sport, watch sport; it's not inherently cinematic in itself, and it's generally not narratively interesting. That said, there are movies (case in point, Rush) which use sport as a background to tell great stories, and in doing so become great films. And for the first 45 minutes or so at least, Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw is a great movie.

The film begins with Billy 'The Great' Hope securing the World Light Heavyweight championship title winning his 43rd consecutive match, and then guides us to a tragic event, following which Billy loses everything; his family, his job, his house and the vast majority of his friends and entourage as he uncovers a clearer picture of who had his back all along. The events of the film's first act are emotionally stunning, and Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams and Oona Laurence give incredible performances accordingly.

Once Billy hits rock bottom however, and arrives at a run-down gym owned by Forest Whitaker's grizzled veteran trainer Wills, it seems that director Antoine Fuqua loses interest in the human drama and just wants to make a boxing-movie after all. Every tired old trope is duly rolled out, from the starting-again-at-the-bottom approach to Billy's training, through the I'm-a-disappointment-to-my-kid and the associated quivering bottom-lip, all the way to a-training-montage-set-to-music (yes, really). I should point out that it's never a bad boxing movie, but it certainly becomes a one you've seen before (and as mentioned, I don't watch boxing-movies and even I've seen it before). Because quite frankly, when the promo-material trumpets that it's "from the director of The Equalizer", how groundbreaking do you expect the end product to be?

But saving the film, indeed lifting it triumphantly, is Gyllenhaal's performance. Even in its most pedestrian moments, the screenplay is graced with the presence of one of the finest screen actors of his generation. Countering this perfectly is Oona Laurence as his daughter Leila, a role which could easily have come off as bratty and contrary with any other actress, but to which she brings a genuine sense of internal conflict*1. And last but not least is Rachel McAdams, demonstrating once again that while she doesn't always pick the most challenging roles, she's got the skills when the part calls for them*2.

Jake Gyllenhaal is giving everything he's got as an immersive screen performer to a story of trust, loss, regret and redemption.

Forest Whitaker is in a boxing movie.

Oh, and I mentioned plot spoilers.
Do not read if you haven't seen the film.
Now, as the film goes on, the converging screenplay makes it perfectly clear that this underdog-story is only going to end one way. And I'm fine with that. Of course Billy is going to accept the grudge-match fight against his moral enemy. Of course that fight is going to go on for twelve rounds with both fighters in increasing states of disrepair. Of course that last round is going to go on until the final few seconds when our hero will land one final uppercut which sends his nemesis flying backwards in a high-framerate/slow-motion spray of blood, sweat and saliva. But when Escobar then gets up again before the bell rings; when the winner is decided by the judges and even then Billy only squeezes through by two points, he hasn't really redeemed himself, has he? It may be a technical victory, but it's not the moral, narrative one if he's only "slightly" better than his opponent. He hasn't spent the last two hours of our time proving that he's "about the same" as the major-league arsehole from act 1, has he? He hasn't gone on this elliptical journey of self-realisation and fulfilment only to be validated not by his own actions and determination, but by a judge who frankly couldn't made a decision either way, has he? Really, Fuqua? Really?
Apart from that, I really enjoyed it.

Oh, and…
When Maureen is shot in the scuffle at the hotel lobby, the police tell Billy that they suspect it was one of his minders that had the gun, but they can't go any further because "no-one's talking". What the actual fuck? A hotel that opulent would have CCTV everywhere, especially in a public-area like the lobby. Even if the gun was concealed at the time of the shot, the CCTV would pick up the muzzle-flare and/or the recoil easily. Are the NYPD really lazy enough to suspend a murder investigation of an international sporting champion's wife in public because "no-one wants to talk"? What's worse is that no-one outside of the police force really seems to give a shit about it for the rest of the film, either.
…it's still rather good, though. Really.

Is this film worth paying £10+ to see?
If boxing movies are your thing, yes.

Well, I don't like the cinema. Buy it, rent it, or wait for it to be on telly?
Probably a rental, you may not get enough rewatch-value to buy it.

Does this film represent the best work of the leading performer(s)?
Gyllenhaal is on fire, once again.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Only just.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Oh, and is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

…but what's the Star Wars connection?
Southpaw stars none other than Forest Whitaker, due to make an appearance in 2016's Star Wars: Rogue One.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although during the final, climactic match, her section of the script devolves to "Oh! Daddy's getting hurt!", as if she's been previously unaware that he's a boxer and has forgotten all the nights he's come home and kissed her goodnight, drooling blood all over her duvet. No seriously, this happens in the film. That won't come out at forty degrees...

*2 One of McAdams' first scenes sees her sending an apparently surreptitious text to an unknown recipient, in a sort of "oh, we'll be coming back to this one later" type way. Then it's never mentioned again. What gives there, then? Trust-issues sub-plot lost in the edit?

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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