He wraps his hands in white gauze over the ink that snakes up his arms. His knuckles are carefully padded, gently, gingerly, while the music in his headphones blocks out the noise, the roar of thousands who are either chanting his name or baying for his blood. Lights flash in his eyes as he walks to the ring, ready.
That’s the opening scene of sports drama, Southpaw, in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a boxing legend and world champion, Billy Hope – a man who’s managed to attain the American Dream. He and his beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), both came through the “system” (of foster care), growing up in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Now, he has it all: fame, fortune, family.
But when tragedy strikes, it all turns to shit. After Billy headbutts a referee his fighting licence is suspended, and his daughter is taken away. There’s nothing left. Rock bottom is a dark place. “I’m a fucking mess”, he admits. And when you’re down and out, friends are few.
Desperate to salvage something, anything, and fix his relationship with daughter, Billy gets a job as a cleaner at the gym of a cynical, seasoned trainer and former boxing great, Titus “The Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker). Billy convinces Titus to train him, for one more fight against his nemesis. He develops a better defence strategy, and the southpaw boxing move – a stance where the boxer has his right hand and right foot forward, leading with right jabs, and following with a left cross-right hook (yeah I had to look it up).
Southpaw follows the thematic formula of this kind of sports film: loss, despair, revenge, overcoming the odds, redemption. And herein lies the film’s greatest flaw: the plot. It relies on a storyline filled with clichés that’s been told numerous times. The audience knows the outcome.
What saves Southpaw from being a failure is the calibre of the actors. Gyllenhaal employed method acting for the role, saying he trained and boxed until he puked. No stunt double was used. Gyllenhaal absorbed every punch, emphasising the intensely visceral nature of the film. At the same time he captures the fury and emotional torture of someone who’s been knocked down by life. The inimitable Whitaker is impeccable as Billy’s disenchanted, good-hearted trainer. And rapper 50 Cent is rather amusing as Billy’s underhanded manager, who jumps ship the moment his client is no longer a moneymaker. It’s this – the performances by the actors – that gives some audience satisfaction, provided you can look past the prosaic plot.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent
Rating: 3 out of 5
Southpaw opens in South African cinemas on 4 September 2015.