"Southpaw" begins and ends with boxing matches. The two hours between are filled with life's battles. Some spill into the boxing ring. But the battles of daily life are not so cleanly configured, nor can life's other cut men stop the bleeding of the soul. That may be a more personal struggle.
There are few spoiler alerts for "Southpaw." Jake Gyllenhaal's Billy "the Great" Hope's path is well worn. Director Antoine Fuqua doesn't so much avoid clichés as pump greater life into familiar fight film themes. We meet Billy Hope as reigning undisputed and undefeated World Light Heavyweight champion. When tragedy befalls Billy, the fall from grace is pitted with betrayals, deprivation, tests of character, found friendship and, of course, the opportunity for redemption. As Rachel McAdams, Billy's wife, warns him: when the bubble bursts, his entourage will scatter like roaches. It bursts. They scatter. Billy's fall is taken alone.
Films about boxing are almost always about conflict and difficult fits. Boxing is overwhelmingly the story of the underclass, the poor struggling to rise. Successive waves of immigrants have tried to use boxing to escape poverty - Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews and African Americans. But even when successful, there is seldom a story book ending. It's a landscape of wasted wealth, failed families and broken bodies. Fighters ill equipped to deal with financial success are primed for social failure. The much publicized crashes of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, obscure the legions of contenders like Benny "Kid" Paret and Davey Moore who were beaten to death or brain damaged Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson who was reduced to shining shoes. Even the physical depredations of the sport's patron saint Muhammad Ali cast a sad shadow.
Billy Hope is no different. His success in the ring patches over his inability to manage his life. The great wealth that fighting confers insulates rather than prepares him for life. Gyllenhaal takes these punches full on, just as he captures the camera directly squeezing his emotions out through cuts, blood and stubble. After last year's brilliant but unrewarded performance in "Nightcrawler," Gillenhaal has shared another vastly different, though just as quintessentially American success story.
Director Fuqua returns to the sure hand of his success with Training Day, providing the balance of room and framework for stellar performances from McAdams, trainer Forest Whitaker, daughter Oona Laurence, manager Curtis Jackson and nemsis Miguel Gomez. Kurt Sutter's writing captures rather than over writes the genre. The film is dedicated to the late James Horner who wrote the score before his untimely recent death in a plane crash. As well as still containing his music, the film was originally to star Eminem relating through the boxing metaphor some of the rapper's own struggles.
But beyond recounting personal struggles, the best films about boxing - and "Southpaw" is one of the very best - are about class and social structure in the United States. And what better view of such than from a southpaw . . . a lefty.