Friday, 4 September 2015

Southpaw (2015) - Movie Review

Jake Gyllenhaal might be one of the last few ‘actor’s actors’ still working today that hasn’t become dulled with age. Between his obsessed cartoonist in Zodiac, his bubbling-under-the-surface detective in Prisoners and his complete psychotic in Nightcrawler, he has proven time and again that he throws everything he has into the roles he’s given. Well, save for The Day After Tomorrow, but barely anyone survives an encounter with Roland Emmerich and has a career left to tell about it. So, one look at Gyllenhaal’s scrawny visage in Nightcrawler to the gritty muscle he’s packed on for today’s film gives hope that this will be much the same.

The plot: Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has gone undefeated in the boxing ring, but his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) fears that he may not live much longer if he continues. After a tragic accident involving an off-site fight with Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), Billy’s life is shattered as his wife is killed and he loses custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). With his personal and professional lives both in ruins, he seeks out former champion Titus 'Tick' Wills (Forest Whitaker) to train him, so that he can challenge Miguel and reclaim both his title and his daughter.

I’m not usually interested in sports stories, a by-product of my general apathy concerning watching other people play sports. Sure, show me the Sydney Swans winning the Grand Final and I’ll get excited along with everyone else, but for the most part, it’s one of those times where I’d rather do it myself than watch someone else; Let’s Play fatigue, to put it in more geeky terms. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t give credit where it’s due in terms of said stories being told well, and this admittedly is. Sure, it’s a pretty standard instance of the Sporting Phoenix, where the main character has to regain his former glory with the help of an older mentor in the given sport, but both Gyllenhaal and Whitaker make it work beyond the standard plot.

Tried-and-true dramatic beats be damned, Gyllenhaal sells all of it makes you feel every crushing blow that he receives both in and out of the ring. From his initial elation concerning his family and his success to his trauma concerning what happens to them to his suicidal behaviour and sheer desperation to put everything right again, it brings waterworks on the regular. Whitaker’s grizzled veteran role may be even more tired than the premise itself, but Whitaker gives it the charisma and presence required to make it at least passable, helped by his chemistry with Gyllenhaal on-screen as they get their montage on.

Beyond our main leads, the cast list is… kind of strange. In that, only a handful of the supporting cast is comprised of actual actors. Rachel McAdams, for as little as we see of her, provides a good anchor for Billy and adds to the believability that her death could break him as badly as it does. Oona Laurence as their daughter Leila may be a little inconsistently written, but credit where it’s due to the young actress for providing an actual performance here, something that is kind of rare amongst child actors. Other than that, the people who get the majority of the screen time are Miguel Gomez, who is a pretty stock rival archetype, Curtis ‘Net Worth 50 Cents’ Jackson as Billy’s manager, which turns out about as well as can be expected, and Rita Ora as Miguel’s wife Maria, who portrays a smack addict in all of one scene; not going to joke about perfect casting or anything, just saying that she is well utilized.

Actually, the notion of adding pop stars to the cast list was originally going to be a lot more prominent, with IRL Sporting Phoenix rapper Eminem in the title role. However, back in 2012, he put the film on hold to continue with his music and was replaced about two years after by Gyllenhaal. Given how his film debut 8 Mile is directly linked to his musical fall from grace that inflicted Encore and Relapse onto the world, I can only see this as a good decision for everyone involved. However, he wasn’t entirely detached from the project as he went on to executive produce the soundtrack album for the film… and it is here that the film’s main flaw shows itself.

The soundtrack album itself has a list of collaborators that is made to make mouths water for any respectable hip-hop head: Busta Rhymes, Tech N9ne, Joey Bada$$, Slaughterhouse and PRhyme with higher-ups like DJ Khalil, Just Blaze and DJ Premier on the boards. But then they are put into context with the film itself and it doesn’t sound so sweet. It has a similar problem to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: The songs themselves are perfectly fine, but their use in-film sucks. There’s a difference between hearing Eminem’s Phenomenal, with its unabashedly weak chorus, on its own and then hearing it over a training montage between Billy and Wills: In one instance, said weak chorus can be ignored for the strength of Em’s technically and lyrically strong verses; in the other, the chorus is the main focus of the song being used at all. In fact, with how sporadically the songs are used, it’s almost as if the film itself forgets that it even has this soundtrack to begin with and only injects random songs from it as soon as it does remember, making for a rather jarring auditory experience. Then again, I doubt that the opening hook for Beast would have sounded good in any context.

All in all, while it does carry a lot of baggage considering how pragmatically it follows the rise-fall-rise-again framework for a sports movie, credit to the actors for managing to pull it off as well as they did with Gyllenhaal creating some serious heart-breakers throughout. A worthy mention should be made to Kurt Sutter’s writing as well, as he at least had enough sense in him to avoid some of the deeper foot-holes concerning this plot like not having this be a comeback fuelled by revenge. Honestly, even more so than the been-there-done-that plot, the main sticking point for me was the mishandled use of the hip-hop soundtrack within the film. This is worth seeing for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone, even if the writing isn’t quite as tight as his previous efforts.

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