“Southpaw” is, of course, the term for a left-handed athlete or just plain left-hander, which is one of the more positive terms, as “left-handed” translated from other languages often means something like clumsy, ill-mannered or possessed by the devil. However, as many have noticed pre-release, the star of the new movie, Jake Gyllenhaal, is right-handed, so where does the title meaning come in? The truth is that it comes from a training tip from Jake’s movie coach, Forest Whitaker, who is helping him get his groove back and earn redemption in the Big Match, but it’s slipped in during a montage when he advises Jake to fight well, in the southpaw stance. We never get a full conversation, unaccompanied by music encouraging the star to put one foot in front of the other, about the pros and cons of this training technique, but it does – spoiler – come in handy in the end. Now this is also a metaphor for life, but still, it’s an awfully casual way to explain what is supposed to be the movie title. Maybe they just had a struggle coming up with a name in the first place and wound up picking one at random that didn’t sound too terrible.
If you’ve seen the trailer for “Southpaw,” you’ve seen all the main spoilers, so nothing in this review will come as a great surprise. Jake plays (heavy symbolism alert) boxer Billy Hope, who grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and married his childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams). Now he’s mega-successful, has a lot of friends and admirers, and a mansion, multiple cars, etc. He also has a precocious young daughter, Oona Laurence, who is a good actress but still left me wondering how Jake and Rachel could produce such an average looking child. Anyway, when the movie opens, Jake isn’t doing quite as well in his matches as his wife thinks. She believes he should back off and take a break, but there’s this rival, the arrogant, trash talking Miguel (played also by an actor named Miguel Gomez) who keeps popping up and taunting Jake about being too cowardly to fight him. So the stage is set for a tragedy, which leaves Jake without his assets, many of his friends, the respect of the boxing community, his wife, and finally, his daughter, who is taken into custody by child protective services, so he can get his act together.
As mentioned, Jake takes refuge at a down-at-the-heels gym, owned and run by Forest Whitaker, who sees himself (in sports movie tradition) as a mentor to disadvantaged minority youths, as well as a coach. To help Jake satisfy the requirements needed to release Oona, he gives him a menial job and begins to train him. There’s no professional pressure at first, as Jake has been suspended, but soon fate comes knocking, and regulations be damned, a charity match is arranged between Jake and another guy, and then (due to much improved behavior) Jake is now free to face his big rival in the ring. After Jake proves his humility by being nice to the youths at the gym and painting both sides of the fence so to speak, he is ready to train, montage-style, – and perhaps win.
As plenty of reviewers have already noted, this is a very formulaic sports movie with no surprising plot twists to speak of. There is a lot of cussing (at least five f-bombs in that many minutes in the opening scene) and amazingly enough, a lot of violence. At one point, Jake’s now former manager advises his flunkies to follow Jake out and make sure he doesn’t destroy anything on the way; this is about all the humor you’re going to find in the movie. As he did in “Nightcrawler,” Jake also gets to express emotional anguish by smashing a mirror, which seems to be a popular way for actors to demonstrate that they are in pain, when their character is too inarticulate to convey this through words. I felt the director overdid the panning to the daughter during Jake’s Big Match in order to generate heart-warmingness, but if you like boxing, this is a perfectly good movie to spend a couple hours watching.