"Southpaw": Isn't Your Father's "Rocky!" Psychology of this Extremely Well Done Portrayal of a Boxer's Angst. Riches to Rags to Manhood - A Coming of Age Movie

Stephen Arch                sparch@comcast.net                   www.sparch@facebook.com

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  Junior Middleweight Boxing Champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllanhaal)

Junior Middleweight Boxing Champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllanhaal)

Finding out that one of the screenwriters for this drama was Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield), I knew that there was going to be a serious psychological push in this movie. Admittedly, Sutter is a fan of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, and the mental trials and travails that punish people, particularly people who have risen to high levels, whatever their position in life is. Not saying that Sutter is hung up on Hamlet, but you know that you are getting something a bit more dramatic, a bit more cerebral in his works, if you let it happen.

  Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Miguel Gomez)

Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Miguel Gomez)

Note:  my wife is NOT a boxing movie fan, nor is she a fan of violent movies, but she did enjoy the story that took place around the boxing in Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllanhaal as Billy Hope, an orphan to 43 - 0 Junior Middleweight boxing Champion of the World, partly through fate, but mostly due to his "rage" gets his also long time companion, decision maker, orphaned wife (they met at a CYS shelter as children) killed in a fit of rage - she is shot when Hope responds to taunts from an up and coming boxer, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

After the "rock" of the family (Maureen) is killed, Hope is left to struggle with his very angry daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) who is precious until the death of her mother and how it happened: Maureen Hope (Amy McAdams).  She is the glue that holds this family together.

  Maureen Hope sits watching Billy box next to long time friend and money sucking manager Jordan Mains (Curtis 50 Cent) Jackson

Maureen Hope sits watching Billy box next to long time friend and money sucking manager Jordan Mains (Curtis 50 Cent) Jackson

  Leila Hope (Oona Laurence)

Leila Hope (Oona Laurence)

  Maureen concerned over Hope's reckless boxing style

Maureen concerned over Hope's reckless boxing style

And of course, Billy Hope, like all movie boxers, is a real palooka, like Rocky, who knows only boxing but can't really take care of himself - he has no direction.  Along comes the real star of the movie Tick Willis played by Forest Whitaker. Tick is a washed up boxer who owns a gym for training young, inner-city street kids who Hope turns to after Hope has lost his wife, all of his 43 - 0 trappings, his daughter to CYS, his career (Hope loses his first fight after all of the chaos - he lost his edge and concentration - and hits a referee, basically ruining his career, for a year at least).

  Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker)

Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker)

Writer's note:  I was listening to an interview with Jake Gyllanhaal on The Howard Stern Show the other day and Gyllanhaal relayed a story to Stern about the beginning of shooting of Southpaw. He told Stern that from the very beginning of the movie, Whitaker pulled Gyllanhaal aside and said "hey, this isn't JUST your movie.  It's not all about you."  Which tells you something of role Whitaker plays in the movie.

Willis becomes Hope's hope, his "svengali" - Hope needs to box again (that's all he knows) to make a living - to make money - to get his daughter back from CYS.  And he needs Willis.  It is clear he has to do things Tick's way if he wants to get back into the ring eventually to earn a fight against Escobar.  

Billy Hope's "mission" to get his boxing edge back after his suspension, and Willis teaches him this, is to be more in control of his emotions, his feelings, his anger, his life.  Willis becomes not only his trainer, but anger management coach, his substance abuse adviser, his life coach. He even "tries" to train him to stop using vulgar language.  And because Escobar was responsible for Hope's wife's death, it would play out to become a grudge match, and Willis knows that if Hope encounters Escobar in the ring, Hope will lose not only his cool and demeanor, but lose the fight.  Willis has to teach Hope control, something Hope knows nothing of.  Willis even teaches Hope to fight left handed - to fight smart - to throw competitors off their game.  I initially thought the movie was named Southpaw because Billy Hope was a left handed boxer.  But that wasn't it, and to understand the title, one has to understand that Willis "teaches" Hope to fight like a left handed boxer - to entirely change his approach to boxing, which leads to entirely changing his approach to life.

Nice touch.

However, the main point of this movie, boxing scenes aside, is the growth of Billy Hope psychologically and into a "man" who can take care of his daughter in the absence of a mother. The orphaned Billy Hope has no relationship skills, and Tick gives them to him,

As a boxer, Hope is a puncher, an aggressive fighter.  Willis teaches him to be a thinker, a craftsman, a defensive boxer who, instead of taking punches to become angry enough to pummel his opponent in the ring (something Maureen notices), a boxer who blocks punches and wears out his opponent.  To take advantage of his opponent's mistakes.  

That is the key to this movie.  The relationship between Tick and Billy (with Leila as the prize). If Hope can use the skills Tick teaches him in the ring, those same skills will transfer to Hope's life, and he will and does, eventually become a man, regardless of the outcome.

SPOILER ALERT

In the final scene of Rocky I,  Rocky is screaming for "Adrian, Adrian" to come and comfort him in his time of need.  At the end of Southpaw, Hope, whose signature move at the end of his fights was to stand on the ropes in the corner of the ring and accept the congratulatory cheers from the crowd, is reduced, at the end of his last fight, kneeling and praying in the corner of the ring, alone, whispering "no more."  Willis has succeeded, as has Hope.  This is the major difference in the movie.  No rags to riches.  Rather, this is a COMING OF AGE film - riches to rags to manhood.  Boxing is simply the means to an end.  Hope must become a real "man" for his daughter and for himself, something he knew nothing about prior to hooking up with Tick.

  Hope's manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) plays a underdeveloped and a bit confusing character in  Southpaw .

Hope's manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) plays a underdeveloped and a bit confusing character in Southpaw.

Curtis 50 Cent Jackson who plays Hope's money grubbing, front runner manager, really doesn't have a strong presence on the screen.  His acting is weak, and he lacks intensity.  I don't know if this was part of Fuqua and Sutter's plan, but I wasn't impressed by his acting in this movie.  He played cool, but maybe a bit too cool.  Didn't seem like acting.  He sort of just recited his lines. And there was no development of this shady character at all. At the end, he is clapping for Hope, but I am not sure what this small scene meant.  Did it mean he really "liked" Hope even though he screwed him out of all of his money and backed his opponent, the man responsible for killing Hope's wife?   His role seemed lost at times, and by the end of the movie, I was left really trying to understand his character. It seemed forced or, maybe, a bit too casual.

Oona Laurence as Leila and Amy McAdams play their roles extremely well.  Love, adoration, and care oozes from their personality.  When Maureen dies, her final words are "I just want to go home" - home being the comfort of life with Billy and Leila.  

I'm not a boxing aficionado, but the boxing scenes were believable to a certain point.  These are actors, and Fuqua needed to not only show the brutality of the sport, but was tasked with showing the mental aspect of each boxer's character.

Eminem's soundtrack was "ok," but, as an Eminem fan, wasn't his best work. It seemed forced. (Eminem was originally cast as Billy Hope but turned the role down because of prior commitments and because of his working on a new album).  Wasn't impressed with the soundtrack.  Sounded as if they threw in some quickly produced songs just to have a soundtrack.  

The dialogue is great, except for all the grunts and expletives uttered by Gyllanhaal.  But all the great lines come from Whitaker, McAdams, and Laurence.  

All in all, even if you're not a boxing fan - this movie is a great movie.  If you are squeamish, hide your eyes during the boxing scenes. But I suggest you keep them open throughout - to learn from Hope's mistakes.

The beauty is not the boxing in this movie.  The message of responsibility and inner struggles is key in Southpaw, and because I know Sutter's writing so well, I am sure he had the bulk of responsibility to bring this out.  Sutter's acumen is making villains into likable people - to turning the audience's sympathy toward the tragic character.  Sutter has the mindset of a modern day Shakespearean tragedian, to be sure. And that is what makes this movie not a boxing movie, but a life movie. If he could write Jax Teller into a sympathetic character, he had no problems helping put this movie together.