Redemption comes at last when a slow learner finally masters his destiny in Southpaw. It’s a hard-won battle every step of the way. Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) is boxing at the top of his game after he and his wife Maureen (McAdams) have crawled up from an orphanage, always sticking together. Then tragedy strikes—helped along by hotheaded Billy—and he begins to lose everything that is meaningful to him. At rock bottom, he looks to Tick Wills (Whitaker) a former trainer who owns a gym, but is rejected because he appears not to be willing to make changes. When it looks like this will be his only chance, he agrees to start at the bottom and see if he can work his way up to the point where he regains custody of his daughter.
This is a brutal film (rated R for its violence) with long, bloody boxing scenes and agonizing sequences, so not for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs. Gyllenhaal bulked himself up for the role, and adapted his ordinarily clear voice to curt mumbles and grumbles to fit the character. Just as much a star, Whitaker delivers philosophical truths (“Stopping punches with your face is not defense”) quick, targeted comebacks, and behavioral conditions that will be essential to Billy Hope’s rehabilitation and ability to fight strategically. McAdams is well cast as a loving wife who takes care of her husband as much as she can. Young Oona Laurence as the Hopes’ daughter Leila deserves recognition for her portrayal of a grief-stricken child who faces overwhelming losses.
Director Antoine Fuqua realizes writer Kurt Sutter’s script in well-paced, believable sequences, and he works closely with his colleague in other films, Mauro Fiore, to produce stunning camera work, alongside an inspiring musical score. The film is dedicated to its award winning musician and popular film composer James Horner (Titanic, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind), who was killed last month in a plane crash.
The film is a bit slow to get started with its real drama beyond the fight sequences (and some of the fights occur before you get a chance to invest in the characters), and the struggles between the Hope couple are excruciating to sit through. A good bit of it is watching the wife trying to rein in her drug-addled, fight-obsessed husband, often to no avail. I think trimming some of these scenes would have made this a better film. When it moves into showing the psychology of Billy Hope and his rehabilitation and relationship with his daughter, it becomes much more engaging.
Redemption for a slow learner.
Grade: C+ By Donna R. Copeland