Yes, I know, genteel church folks are not likely to want to watch
a boxing movie. We see that
old rugged sport as too violent, and we don't wish to encourage it, lest
we somehow further its brutality. And
there's no question that the fight sequences in “Southpaw” are
extremely realistic, and it appears that the participants are really
taking a bloody beating. Which
is actually a testimony to the unique gruesome ballet of the world's
oldest mayhem (see Cain and Abel, Genesis 4).
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen,
a very rough neighborhood in New York City, and was raised in an
orphanage, where he met his lovely wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), when
they were both 12.
Billy discovers as a teenager that he has the quickness and
athleticism to excel in the boxing ring.
He isn't afraid of being hurt;
in fact, he says the harder he's hit, the greater his motivation
to hit back. He's a
counterpuncher and a brawler, whereas most light heavyweights rely more
on finesse, slipping punches and keeping their opponents off balance
with left jabs and foot speed. He
pummels people, but he takes a lot of hits, too.
Maureen is beginning to worry that the cumulative effect of all
those head shots is going to make him “punch drunk” in a couple of
years, and she's already encouraging him to quit, even though he's just
now ascended to the pinnacle of his profession:
the light heavyweight champion of the world.
Billy has the big mansion, the fancy car, and an entourage of his
old buddies from “the 'hood”---and a daughter whom he adores, Alice
(Clare Foley), but he just calls her “baby,” even though she's nine
years old. Maureen and Billy
and Alice are a close family, loving and supportive, and so far they've
kept the demons at bay about Billy's drinking bouts, because Maureen is
so good at covering for him. But
then when Maureen's out of the picture, everything else falls apart for
Billy. Suddenly broke, he
signs a contract for a fight where he's so ill-prepared he embarrasses
himself. He crashes his car,
and then his house and possessions are re-possesed.
His agent quits him, and so does the entourage whom he can't pay
anymore. He hits bottom when
he loses custody of his daughter to Child Protective Services, and he
has to humble himself to take a job cleaning up an old gym, presided
over by the crusty curmudgeon and sometime trainer Titus “Tick”
Wills (Forest Whitaker).
We all know what's going to happen:
Billy eventually begins to recover himself, and “Tick”
becomes an unlikely mentor, mainly because what they both need right now
is a true friend. Clean and
sober and hungry for redemption now, Billy Hope begins to re-discover
the satisfaction of training hard and preparing himself to do what he
does best: fight.
Oh, and “Tick” even teaches him some new technique, including
blocking punches, and occasionally switching the lead foot, and going
“southpaw” in his approach (hence the title).
Of course the way back isn't easy.
His daughter, once sweet and loving, is now angry and withdrawn,
and at times won't even agree to his supervised visits in her children's
home. But something in Billy
Hope won't give up, even when he's knocked down, either in the ring or
outside of it. That's what
makes him who he is. And
that's why we root for him, even though he's a flawed character.
Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic in this role, and he's surrounded by
a couple of tremendous supporting performances, by Rachel McAdams and
Forest Whitaker. This film
transcends the pugilist genre to become a movie about recovering
yourself when you're down. Most
of us know something about how hard that is to do.