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The Fight Scenes in 'Southpaw' Are Brutal and Beautiful

The fight scenes comprise a slamming mix of point of view shots, ringside images, and dazzling choreography showcases, as well as generally corny reaction shots.


Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Skylan Brooks, Beau Knapp, Rachel McAdams, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-07-24 (General release)
UK date: 2015-07-24 (General release)

"I want to take a break." Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is dumbfounded. The undefeated light heavyweight champion has just won his 43rd fight, and his wife, his beautiful, perfect, ever supportive wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) wants him to turn down a challenge.

It's late at night, post-bout, at the start of Southpaw. Safe inside their exquisitely gaudy bedroom, their flawless daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) down the hall, the couple engages in a ritual wherein she observes his injuries and they seduce one another, their bodies gorgeous, their appreciation mutual. This time, though, Mo wants something new, not more of the same. Now she worries that the effects of their choices, the years of battering on Billy. "I didn't like what I saw tonight," she tells her husband. "You scared me, you can't fight like that anymore."

By "like that" she means Billy's channeling his enormous anger. Both products of Hell's Kitchen and a nightmarish foster care system, Mo and Billy survived by fighting with everyone but each other. But while she's learned to negotiate, to make deals and run the brilliant boxing career, he's still pummeling and being pummeled, without nuance and with too much need to prove himself, still, against younger fighters who mean to take his place as he once took someone else's.

All of this means that the psychological architecture of Antoine Fuqua's movie is utterly familiar. Add in the element of Billy's agent Jordan (50 Cent), who repeatedly frames his advice with the mantra, "If it makes money, it makes sense," and you see that Mo's efforts to re-set the career trajectory will run counter to all the man-boys' needs.

Sitting poolside the next morning, Jordan makes the pitch for another big contract: Jordan argues that he's "been his agent for about ten years, I know what's best for him," Mo comes back, "And I've been his wife for like a hundred years, I know what's better for him." Man-boy Billy's inclined to take the contract, unable to comprehend Mo's objections, his own aging process, or the rage that drives him. The tattoo across his magnificently muscled back, "Fear no man", sums up a little too precisely what he fears even as he might think he doesn't.

When tragedy inevitably strikes, Billy is left on his own. Also inevitably, he drinks a lot, crashes his car, loses his daughter. "It's been kind of like a whole mess," he observes, rather poetically. When at least he's ready for life lessons, he gets them from a couple of wise black folks, the social worker in charge of Leila's case (Angela (Naomie Harris) and Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who runs a broken-down gym, looks out for inner city kids, and insists he's retired from training professional boxers.

Yes, Kurt Sutter's script is trite, built on boxing-manly men movie bromides, the odious and obviously corrupt hangers-on, the mumbly and underappreciated best friends, the gaudy overspending and the precipitous fall from grace. And yes, Southpaw also features training montages and big stakes fight scenes: they don't precisely develop character or move plot, but they do construct a mightily visceral experience.

Because Billy is so conventional and his story's conclusion so foregone, what's striking here are the technical skills on display. Filmed by Mauro Fiore so they're both brutal and beautiful, the fight scenes -- including the climactic bout at Caesar’s Palace -- comprise a slamming mix of point of view shots, ringside images, and dazzling choreography showcases, as well as generally corny reaction shots.

This mix, sometimes thrilling, underlines the genre's investment in a primitive experience, its achievements marked by making you flinch, making you anticipate pain you won't feel. Boxing movies, from 1931's The Champ to 1980's Raging Bull to 2000's Girlfight, allow you distance even as they immerse you in damage, in the violence of the spectacle.

Beyond this phenomenal experience -- and Eminem's theme song for the movie in which he was slated to star is "Phenomenon" -- boxing movies can't help but indicate the social dilemma shaping the industry, the desperation of the fighters, the incessant, profound, horrific disparity of classes. Southpaw buries its indication in Mo, her recognition of the tradeoff and the costs, as well as in Tick's gym and the kids lost to poverty and hopelessness.

That Billy is lost then not lost makes him fortunate, an embodiment of the hope he carries around as a last name. That Mo is just lost is equally symbolic and clichéd. If only we could all take a break.


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