Was there ever a boxer that had it easy in a Hollywood movie? Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope is the latest in a long line of blue-collar bruisers – stretching all the way back to Paul Newman’s Rocky Graziano in the 1956 drama Somebody Up There Likes Me – to fight his way out of the gutter, putting behind him the Hell’s Kitchen orphanage to find wealth and success as a junior middleweight boxing champion. When we meet him, lack of privilege is most definitely a thing of the past; Hope is living the nouveau riche dream in an upstate mansion with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a fellow refugee from poverty, and daughter Leila.
Hope has a walk-in wardrobe, a drawer full of silk ties and cufflinks, mounts for his Rolexes, but in the ring he’s an animal. Indeed, when we first encounter him – tattooed and pumped, head bobbing with impatient urgency – he is listening to the pounding hip-hop of rap track Beast, tuning into his primal instincts as he prepares to do battle with his opponent. This yin and yang of Hope’s psyche – the feral Dr Jekyll versus the urbane Mr Hyde – will provide the essential dynamics of Antoine Fuqua’s visceral but somewhat familiar drama: when Hope is deprived of all his worldly goods, which of his dual personalities will dominate?
In the grand tradition of the genre, we don’t have to wait long before Hope’s world spirals into chaos. An altercation with trash-talking rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) at a charity event goes tragically wrong: a gun is pulled and a stray bullet hits very close to home. Destroyed by grief, Hope loses his veneer of civilisation, embarking on a drunken spree of vengeance that achieves next to nothing. Soon, he’s broke and alone: foul play in the ring results in suspension, which in turn leads to bankruptcy, and not only is he toxic in the boxing world, a DUI misdemeanour leads to Leila being taken into care.
When Hope is at his lowest ebb, where will Southpaw take us next? Once again, Fuqua’s film sticks with formula. Seeking out a mentor, Hope finds Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker), a trainer who works with street kids in a spit-and-sawdust downtown gym. Tick initially refuses, then, after relenting, takes on Hope under a set of strict instructions that will curb his anger and alcohol issues. This much is par for the course as part of a riches-to-rags-to-redemption story, but, even while dutifully ticking such boxes, Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter’s script at least delivers some unusual digressions: Gyllenhaal wrings genuine pathos from Hope’s situation, taking up residence in a squalid unfurnished flat as he takes steps to prise his now alienated daughter from the hands of the authorities.
So far, so familiar, and with almost any other actor in the lead role, Southpaw’s soft-boiled melodrama would be the stuff of soap opera. Gyllenhaal, however, makes a powerful transition that towers above the material, giving Hope a real sense of power if not quite the menace.
Boxing matches have been filmed more artfully before, notably by Martin Scorsese in Raging Bull, but Fuqua finds his own, equally effective style, opting instead for the vivid HD glare of pay-per-view fights. It’s in these moments that Southpaw comes alive, giving Hope a sense of impetuosity that creates a genuine uncertainty as to whether his attempts at a comeback will succeed or fail. The ghost of Rocky Balboa looms large, but Gyllenhaal makes the character his own with one of the best performances of the year so far: there may be no prizes for guessing what happens to Southpaw’s troubled protagonist, but an Oscar for its star isn’t entirely out of the question.