Posted by Michael Parsons on July 25, 2015 in / 1 Comment


Outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams and promising youngster Oona Laurence land an emotional wallop in director Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama, from a solid script by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter.

Gyllenhaal plays undefeated light heavyweight champ Billy Hope, a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage raised success story happily married to childhood soul mate Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and a devoted father to their daughter, the precocious Leila (Laurence). Leila, like Maureen, knows what’s best for dad. Billy has taken more hits than Maureen cares to count, and she wants him to hang it up for a while and enjoy life outside the ring before he gets too punch drunk.

southpawWhen a developing rivalry with cocky contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) leads to tragedy at a charity event, Billy is beset with rage and succumbs to self-destructive behavior that results in financial ruin and Leila being remanded to social services.

In what is arguably Gyllenhaal’s most challenging role, both physically and psychologically, the “Nightcrawler” star, perpetually bloodied here, gives us someone to root for, hurt with, and even marvel at. Turning to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to get him back on his feet, Billy struggles to satisfy the court in order to gain back custody of his little girl. His grief is practically tactile as he tries to piece his life back together, channeling at times the best of Brando and De Niro, but better. (There are a few moments between Gyllenhaal and newcomer Laurence in which it was tough for me to keep my composure).

Structurally, there isn’t much about “Southpaw” that breaks the mold of the genre. But what it does do extremely well, like Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”, is explore emotional trauma to the very brink of its actors’ capabilities, and Gyllenhaal careens through the film like a runaway freight train. The brakes get applied only after he meets Whitaker’s disciplined Wills, who runs a boxing gym for underprivileged kids and agrees to help Billy get his life back. Cue the kick-ass training montages.

Supporting cast includes Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Billy’s agent and Naomie Harris as the social worker who, more than once, has to inform a brokenhearted Billy that his daughter, embittered by a situation that she doesn’t fully understand, doesn’t want to see him on visitation day. McAdams, firmly in mid-season of the dark HBO drama “True Detective”, gives a nicely balanced turn as Billy’s wife, the rock without whom the champ is completely lost.

Fuqua’s films have recently been hit (last year’s “The Equalizer”) or miss (2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen”), but given a good script and a committed cast such as this one, he can occasionally craft a very powerful drama that, in this case, transcends its conventions. With the exception of a rather bothersome loose end, “Southpaw” gives us exactly what we want in this type of movie.  If you stay away from the trailer, as I did, you might even be in for a few surprises.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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