Film Review: Southpaw - Antoine Fuqua’s gritty sports drama floors the competition.

Hollywood sporting dramas have now almost become an annual occurrence, with particular reference to award season. In the past six years alone, we have seen 'The Blind Side' and 'Invictus' (both 2009), 'Dallas Buyers Club' (albeit loosely termed so, from 2013) and 'The Fighter' (2010).

In the case of the latter, David O Russell’s biopic of boxer Micky Ward and his white trash roots, won both best supporting categories, at the 2011 Oscar ceremony. Now, comes a similar adaptation of The Sweet Science, however this one feels a little different to its 2009 predecessor.

Antoine Fuqua calls the shots this time, a man no stranger himself, to the gritty drama, with 2001’s 'Training Day' and his and Denzel Washington’s infamous corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris, amongst his best work.

 Southpaw tells the story of boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose life is turned upside down after a tragic accident. Hope turns to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help the fallen star get his career back on track.

Compared to 'The Fighter', the action in 'Southpaw' feels more ‘real’. True, it is shot with the assistance of HBO’s superlative sports production team, but even so, you feel each in-ring hit with more venom.

Without wanting to give too much away, this is equally true of the movie’s main emotional plot-twist and whilst the incident occurs out of the ring, when it comes along – at a surprisingly early stage – it feels rather like one has been punched squarely in the mid-riff (a body shot if you will), which for celluloid effect, is particular shrewd of Fuqua.

The stellar cast does a believable job in joining events together. Rachel McAdams’ heart-breaking portrayal as Maureen Hope as the loyal but emotionally torn wife, is sublime. Whitaker as the veteran trainer plunges us deep into the world of a working class gym owner, trying to get by. Even Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson plays the role of a money-driven sports promoter ably, though perhaps lacking a ruthless edge.

Gyllenhaal as Hope, is as bleak a performance as you might expect from a versatile – if at times slightly one-dimensional male lead. It is interesting to note that the star of cult hit 'Donnie Darko' (2001) and last year’s 'Nightcrawler', reportedly stated that he was keen to take on the role, even though the 34 year-old knew little about the sport. If true, his portrayal is even more note-worthy.

There are a few criticisms with the film, however.

For such a bleak two plus hours, some may suggest a fairy-tale conclusion is necessary, however the final scenes feel a little too fluffy and light for an oft-gruelling drama. Also because of its’ heightened production values, it does also feel a little hack-kneed. Billy Hope begins to feel somewhat of a caricature come the final bell, although that may be a gentle side-swipe to the multi-billion dollar industry.

Overall, 'Southpaw' does feel superior to 'The Fighter'. Going into watching it – without the hindsight of a movie synopsis – one isn’t sure what to expect. For all the better.

Gyllenhaal’s only Academy nominee thus far is for horse-wrangling feature 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005) and whilst too soon to tell, after Billy Hope and 'Southpaw', that may no longer be the case.

Words & thoughts of Neil Leverett