Its key character, Billy Hope, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, all muscle and brawn, who shows he knows a few ring-wise tactics when in the square jungle. He gives the film its gravitas with a performance that will certainly find empathy with viewers.
Most boxing movies, apart from a few, follow a tried-and-trusted formula, such as Martin Scorsese’s ground-breaking Raging Bull, which challenges convention. Southpaw is partly romantic and partly sheer grit – an explosive exercise in which a character loses everything after the death of his supportive wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams).
He has to fight his way to the top again, despite having to overcome an age factor. His 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Lawrence), is placed in care and that propels him to rediscover his place in society by relentlessly changing his ways.
What makes director Antoine Fuqua’s production different is that it focuses more on Billy Hope the man, than Billy Hope the boxer, although the two are inextricably entwined. The significant dynamic isn’t Billy against an arrogant opponent or the world. It’s Billy against himself.
Southpaw avoids clichéd characters and allows time to flesh out Billy, his wife, daughter, and later, the grizzled trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) who helps the boxer to regain his self-respect.
The all-round performances, even by young Oona Laurence in her screen debut, are superb with Gyllenhaal again illuminating the screen with his presence, much as he did in Nightcrawler.