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Film Review: Billy Hope becomes America's Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby in Southpaw

Rahul Desai | Updated on: 31 July 2015, 14:01 IST


  • Boxing champion Billy Hope loses everything, rises from the ashes.
  • His downfall is predictable and far too swift.
  • Jake Gyllenhaal excels as an athlete in this predictable underdog saga
  • Tired biopic template wears down some exceptional performances
  • Gyllenhaal\'s physical transformation from the scrawny creep in Nightcrawler is astounding.

Boxing, by nature, is the most primal - and legal - form of internalizing human hardship and pain into a game of sorts. It's no coincidence that most boxers come from humble, troubled backgrounds; the sport is a natural extension of a struggle that manifests itself into an instinct to survive against all odds, even if it means murderously drawing blood.

And people pay to watch this. They pay to see the anger, the seamless merging of brutality and skill. The backstories are usually the same -rags-to-riches v/s arrogance. But modern boxing seems to be too self-aware to give them their money's worth. It's become too technical, like Formula One (F1), with too much dependent on conditioning, technology and factors outside the ring.

This is why cinematic boxing dramas are still attractive to watch; they harness the old-fashioned rawness, reducing it to a physical brawl between two well-toned warriors - a simplistic battle we wish boxing were. Punches are exaggerated, and they land far more than in a primetime Mayweather-Pacquiao match.

Gyllenhaal plays a modern-day version of Rocky Balboa

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal)- you know why he's named Hope - is that cinematic fantasy boxer.

He gets pounded far too often, but has an unbeaten record because he lands fierce punches against the run of play. His face is disfigured and speech slurred; his fighting style wouldn't last a round today, but he exists on screen because all underdogs should.

Southpaw, his story, is about how he transforms from this video-game fighter to a brainy modern boxer - the kind that can defend and, in true Rocky style, switch to Southpaw at a decisive moment- while having to overcome the abrupt death of his wife (Rachel McAdams), and the release of his daughter to child services.

Familiar biopic template, familiar characters

His downfall is predictable and far too swift. A measly flat in Harlem immediately replaces his mansion - or at least that's where I assume most movie boxers come from - and he must rise from the ashes. For company, he has Tick Willis (Whitaker) as his new trainer. These trainers often form the most memorable characters in sporting dramas, flawed instruments that define the credibility of the boxer's eventual comeback.

The success of this journey depends on the magnitude of redemption, which in turn depends on the darkness that precedes it.

In this context alone, Hope reaches the depths of hell. For its obvious metaphorical connotations, the filmmaker wants to see us write this too. However, his partnership with Willis, which will inevitably lead to an eye-of-the-tiger-style training montage, is a bit repetitive, considering how well Whitaker tends to play authoritative figures. The elements are nothing new - tragedy, champ-turned-chump, eccentric coach, and grandstanding finale.

Eventually, it all comes down to the sheer physicality of Gyllenhaal - an aspect that dominates this saga. As a man-child misguided and gullible enough to depend solely on the existence of his wife, as a hard-boiled orphan forced to revisit his loneliness, he drives the formulaic narrative. If nothing, his transformation from the scrawny creep in Nightcrawler is astounding - almost disturbing.

Director Antoine Fuqua constructs this as an all-American character-driven biopic. You know how it's going to pan out, but you hope for Hope to make it a spectacle. In form, his thread is much like that of Hugh Jackman's in Real Steel - which is really not an inaccurate representation of the sport's future - except he's his own robot here. Hope becomes America's Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby; if only the America around him didn't know she was in a film.

We always know he deserves better, but then, so does Jake.

First published: 31 July 2015, 14:01 IST
Rahul Desai @ReelReptile

Rahul Desai is a full-time Federer enthusiast and avid traveller who absolutely must find a way to reach Europe once a year. In his spare time, he reviews films, aspires to own a swimming pool and whines about the lack of palatable food in Mumbai.