by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
I got hit by a southpaw guy once. I honestly thought he’d broken or popped something the second that his foot hit my unguarded and unprepared ribs. As the pain of the hit went through me, I thought I was going to die! I wheezed, I hit the deck and I called time on what was nothing more than a typical Tuesday night training session. To fight “southpaw” is, for want of a better description, to fight lefty. To switch your stance in such a way that punches (and kicks) are thrown from the wrong direction for your opponent. It provides a tactical advantage over the guy in front of you, fighting what is essentially a mirror image of yourself isn’t easy to combat. It’s harder still when a well trained fighter switches stance halfway through a fight, suddenly changing how you have to fight and defend and opening you up for a world of hurt.
Now, my little story is from an MMA point of view, and no matter the discipline, the term “southpaw” always means the same thing, but it’s primarily a boxing term and boxing is where we find ourselves with Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest drama, a film about a man who suddenly loses everything and simply doesn’t know how to cope without the things most precious to him.
Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, a champion boxer with 43 wins and no losses under that huge championship belt. Nicknamed “The Great”, Billy’s strengths lie in his ability to take a beating, to get hit over and over again and still have the strength in him, in his arms to throw enough punches to get the win. Always moving forwards, always getting in close is Billy’s key to success. A man impossible to beat into submission, a rabid dog who knows only how to bite and keep biting until he’s pulled off of his victim. But, on the flipside of that coin, once Billy is outside of the ring, he’s a doting family man; living only for his wife Maureen, his childhood sweetheart who came through the fostering system with him, and his daughter Leila, a headstrong kid who adores her fighter dad.
“The Great” Hope’s life is turned upside down when a charity dinner turns bloody and Maureen is the victim of a stray bullet fired in the heat of the moment. As Billy is forced to watch the life drain from the love of his life as she dies in his arms, as the light leaves her eyes, it begins to leave Billy’s too. With the woman that anchors his life suddenly gone, Billy spirals out of control and, try as he might, he can’t drag himself up from the hole he has found himself in and his daughter is beginning to feel the consequences of her dad’s actions.
After Billy is pushed into his next fight by his manager, uncaring of Billy’s situation and only smelling the money, the once proud, undefeated warrior lets himself take a beating in the ring hoping for some kind of deliverance in the hits he’s taking. Not defending himself, not fighting back, after the fight is stopped, events quickly take a turn for the worse and a rash decision on the boxer’s part quickly snowball and leave him without a home, without an income and with the State of New York taking Leila into care subject to Hope getting his act together and proving that he’s a man worthy of the title of “Father”.
At rock bottom and needing help clawing his way back up, Hope turns to Forest Whitaker’s Tick Willis. A former pro coach turned gym owner who spends his time training the neighbourhood kids and keeping them out of trouble. In a last-ditch attempt to get back his pride, his dignity and his little girl, Billy puts his trust in Tick to lead him down the right path to find some form of salvation from the road that he’s found himself on.
Southpaw comes to us from a pretty heavy hitting team-up. Starting with a great turn from Jake Gyllenhaal, a man who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for last year’s Nightcrawler, puts in an outstanding performance as the broken and beaten Billy Hope. A man who couldn’t be beaten in the ring but couldn’t hold it together outside of it. Direction duties come courtesy of one of my favourite directors working at the moment, Antoine Fuqua. Apart from the fact that he made Training Day, one of my all-time favourite films, he’s turned his hand to a few different genres with a few well known actors and has always been able to make an enjoyable film with what he’s given and that trend absolutely continues with Southpaw. But maybe my biggest surprise was when I discovered that it had been written by Kurt Sutter. A man not everyone knows, but those that do, know that his work is outstanding. Most famous for creating motorcycle drama Sons of Anarchy and being on long-term writing duty for The Shield, Sutter has put together a powerful film with enough emotional pull to get the heart straining at what you’re seeing on screen.
But, outshining all of them, even Gyllenhaal’s impressive change into Billy Hope and his spectacular performance, is (at the time of writing) twelve year old Oona Laurence’s performance as Leila Hope. As Billy’s heart, soul and reason for living, she stole every scene from Gyllenhaal and put in an award worthy show as the distraught little girl who’s lost her mum and is being wrenched from her dad. As one half of Billy’s “fighter” and “father” moniker tattooed along his arms, her fight is almost as great as his as she has to grieve and try to be a grown up for her dad. All of the magic of Southpaw comes from her performance. Every look of anger and disappointment from her will make your heart sink and every glimmer of pride for her old man will make all but the soulless weep for her.
The bottom line, is that Southpaw doesn’t really break any new ground. It’s a redemption story that has been told a hundred times before. Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation to Billy Hope is a spectacular one and a testament to how hard he worked to make his fights look as painful as they do with Fuqua’s direction making every hit hurt and every quiet moment tense. The film’s Oscar worthy performances, its strangely under-stated direction and its great script make it shine above other similar films. Fuqua and Sutter do an amazing job of subtly playing to the fears of every guy wanting to be a dad to their kids and NEEDING to be a man to their daughters. By the time I left the film last night, I was suitably emotionally drained and desperate to get home and hug my little girl, that’s praise enough for me.
You already know if you’re Southpaw‘s audience. Those that are, will love the little over two hours you’ll spend with Billy Hope on his journey for salvation. Those that aren’t, well, I’m sure there’s a talking animal film on for you somewhere.