Boxing movies have established a remarkable record down through the years for providing, sweet, accessible, dare-I-say-in-our-cynical-age “inspiring” stories about men and women who overcome devastating circumstances to triumph in life, even though these stories are mostly clichéd and predictable. One of my favorite movies is one of the least known boxing movies, Cinderella Man (2005), in which Russell Crowe plays the real-life James J. Braddock who, during the depression years, returned to the ring and pulled off an upset of the heavily favored Max Baer. Braddock loves God, his family, is humble and selfless, though strong. If one is looking for a movie that presents a father the way you might want to model yourself as one, Cinderella Man is the one to watch. Of course the Rocky (1976-1990) pictures come to mind, though they suffer from varying degrees of quality, and Million-Dollar Baby (2004), for the first half before it takes a decidedly sharp, dark turn, should be mentioned. Many boxing pictures fill out the resumé of inspiring rags to riches stories, the only exception I can remember being the intentionally-against-type, brilliant Raging Bull (1990).

Southpaw may be short on story creativity, too, but it makes up for it in superb direction and editing, solid dialogue and spectacular performances. Anton Fuqua directed the film, and his choices move the story along so well that one hardly notices how predictable the actual plot points are. His shooting of the fight scenes makes use of a number of techniques, which give deep impressions to the viewer of both the violence and the art of boxing. It is remarkable in this day and age of viewer self-awareness that a film could make you feel that you are actually being punched, but that happened to me in Southpaw. The more dramatic scenes between the boxer, Billy Hope, and his family, his trainers and other people with whom he interacts are just as well done, and Fuqua should be praised as much as the actors for making the audience really feel a part of the events of the film.

The writing gets a little over wrought at times, but generally remains faithful to the streets from which Hope comes, but it is the acting that makes this movie worth viewing. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Billy Hope, is in almost every frame of the film, often looking like he is one punch away from death, but he gives the kind of performance we have come to expect from him. He is thoroughly convincing as the Eminem-like white/black street kid who has achieved success in the ring, then loses it all in the face of a severe downturn in his fortunes. (Eminem was actually offered the part and turned it down.) Rachel McAdams is equally good as Billy’s wife who has come up with him from a foster-care childhood of her own, and Forrest Whitaker and 50 Cent are both excellent as his “last hope” trainer (Whitaker) and as his earlier “money is what it’s all about” trainer (50 Cent).

If you don’t mind the blood, crude language and violence of the ring, Southpaw is a touching love story about a simple man and his family. Enjoy yourself.

Drew Trotter

August 14, 2015

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