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|Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.||MOBILE version ||
This is the most emotional sports movie I've ever seen. Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and screenwriters Kurt Sutter and Richard Wenk have pumped into a boxer's story so much grief and mourning you'd think it was a psychological character piece. And, thanks to a cast that gives it their all, it could go down as that, as well.
Central character Billy Hope, Junior Middleweight champ of the world (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Prisoners," "End of Watch") has the unfortunate habit of dropping his defenses during a match and allowing himself to take a pummeling by those who take advantage of it in the early rounds.
That submission to pain typically is followed by a turn in the tide of the fight when Billy decides he's had enough and is angry enough to get his pound of flesh, becoming fierce enough in the middle rounds to win the bout. Boxing this way has made him a rich man and he revels in the pain he can take and is willing to accept. But, what Fuqua & Co. is promoting here is more drama than realism and, thereby, melodrama. To that end, his fighter HAS to be bloodied if we're to understand the damaging choices he makes.
Comfortably ensconced in his mansion, Billy is married to gorgeous Maureen (Rachel McAdams, "A Most Wanted Man") who attends his fights and tries hard to protect her husband from himself along with the outpouring of loving kindness he desperately needs. More love comes from little Leila (Oona Laurance), the daughter Billy cherishes. But, now we see that his domestic scene is all too good. We're being set up for a bomb.
It comes in the form of an antagonistic fighter trying to get a match with the reluctant champ by pressing his buttons. A purposely fabricated confrontation ends in Maureen being shot and killed. To Billy, an explosion has gone off in his mind and heart. The dream life is over; the downward spiral begins. We've seen this movie before. Or, have we?
Familiar fight movie tropes are hard to avoid but the film seeks individuality by testing an emotion from which there is no escape, no "strategy": grief. Unable to deal with it in a moderate manner, Billy takes a bitter road, led by rage and thoughts of revenge when a court order separates him from his Leila and places her in protective custody. His world is unraveling; his ring career is over and his agent, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), can't undo his fighter's behavior and lack of control.
In the end, the individuality of this fight movie is Gyllenhaal. As I watched the stunningly buffed-up actor go through the torments of his character it occurred to me that, after "Nightcrawler," he might be on a mission to depict all the branches of male self-destruction. If he proves anything with his Billy, it's that he has the commitment and tools to do it, combined with a natural gift for compelling sympathy in any context. We just feel for the guy.
Watch his face carefully when he speaks the line: "They can't take my daughter away from me." At least three instant emotions rose from his heart, stomach and mind to sock us with an actor's absorption in a role. Just for an instant I saw fear, desperation, and self-caution. Perhaps those; perhaps you'll see something else but no one is likely to argue that Jake G. isn't fully in the moment.
As for Forest Whitaker, the fight trainer/mentor that he plays (Titus "Tick" Wills) brings out his best game, nailing a level of acting maturity and depth I've never seen from him before. I suspect his director had something to do with it.
Finely cast, too, are a highly vital McAdams, Curtis James "50 Cent" Jackson III as Billy's agent, and the light of a troubled daddy's life: Oona Laurence. And, again, you detect the director's careful touch with a young actress to channel a portrayal of deep disappointment in the person she loves and depends on most in her universe.
The problem with sport movies is that they're almost always stories of redemption. Which raises the problem of predictability. "Southpaw" is no exception, but it's also the heaviest personal tragedy movie I've seen this year. Come award season, I think that element will arouse mention of it. Gyllenhaal didn't get a Best Actor nod for "Nightcrawler" last Oscar season, which caused consternation among fans and critics. A redemption of that omission could make a nod for his Boxer Billy more likely. One way or another, Gyllenhaal's talent would seem destined for acknowledgement.
Despite length and brazen excess, the melodrama is absorbing and well directed by Anton Fuqua, but I have to take points away for indulging so much in hyper-intensified fight scenes and behavioral swings on the edges of sympathetic acceptance. Even if we love the punches and the sounds of glove vs. skin, Fuqua went the "more is better" route and sacrificed some of the come-from-behind impact.
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