“ A fighter knows only one way to work” Boxing and movies have always fit like a hand in glove, boxing glove that is. With the deadly combination of the cinematic look of a boxing match and the rich stories of so many of its fighters, it’s easy to see why the people who make movies love boxing movies. Add the story of the underdog’s triumphant rise to the top and you got the kind of story everyone knows and still loves. The seventies gave us plenty of things to love, and just as many to despise, I am talking about you Disco, but one of those things we love is the movie everyone thinks of when you use the words boxing and movie together. Are you hearing the Bill Conti horns in your head right about now?
Ever since it’s release in 1976 every boxing movie has longed to be “Rocky”, that movie that made everyone a fan of the unknown rising to the top, but only to fail to reach the desired goal, because you know not everyone wins. Many great films about boxers have followed, from “Raging Bull” to “Million Dollar Baby”, and now the newest one to into the ring, “Southpaw”. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a champion, who as a kid came up through the system after both his parents died. While going through that system he meets Maureen (Rachel McAdams) who becomes the rock in his life. After defending his belts in one match, Maureen starts to try and persuade Billy to take a break, for his health and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). That plan takes a detour when Maureen is killed in an accident, one that sends Billy spiraling out of control, and making him lose everything, including his daughter to protective services. With the goal of getting his daughter back, Billy starts to train in a gym owned by Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who gives Billy’s life the order he so desperately needs.
Billy gets a shot at redemption, a fight to become champion again, and get back the things he lost, and the peace to accept his life without Maureen. Along the way “Southpaw” follows the color by numbers way to make a boxing movie. Everything from being on top, to losing it all, then climbing back up with the help of a cool training montage with some music, and of course winning. While writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) doesn’t color out of the lines on the boxing story, he does bring a lot of heart to the story, from the death of Maureen and the aftermath that comes from that. When you add that and the performances by Gyllenhaal and Laurence, who represent that heart, you have the making of a good movie. When a director chooses to make a boxing movie, they always try and reinvent the wheel on how to film it. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) takes the television view approach, with a little Mike Tyson Punch Out view thrown in at the end. “Southpaw” doesn’t take any chances, and takes the “safe” route, a route that for the record doesn’t make it a bad movie; it just keeps it from achieving greatness. This movie is still a winner to me and although it is not the knock out it was hoping for, in the world of boxing a split decision is still a win for somebody.