Twelve-year old-Oona Lawrence punches through the ordinary passive child role to put out some work that is as riveting, or more, than Jake Gyllenhaal in the ring. Lawrence, best known for originating the role of Matilda Wormwood in “Matilda” on Broadway, is way ahead of her time. You will come away from “Southpaw” wondering how they made up a 25-year-old actress to look 12.
Gyllenhaal gets the bulk of the screen time with boxing stud Billy Hope who came up from the orphanages of the tough side of New York to “be a contenda.” His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), came up through the orphanages with him, or something equally grim, and wants him to quit the ring while he is champion and still has most of his brain left. Between the three of them, Maureen does the thinking and Billy does the boxing and Leila (Lawrence) does the usual kid thing.
When tragedy strikes, Billy loses his money, house and even Leila. Dropping far and fast, he has to scratch and claw at every ounce of inner strength he has to reunite his family. Helping him out is battle-scarred trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who spends more time at the bar than in the gym. Retired from pro-boxing, Wills devotes his life to the kids from the surrounding ‘hoods who come to his gym. He does not make them into fighters; he makes them into men with the self-respect they need to survive in a world that would just as soon see them dead.
By the time Billy and Wills meet, they are both at the ends of their respective lines. Wills has found it impossible to prevent all of his kids from dropping into the inner city abyss that is America’s ghettos, and Billy has lost control of his mind.
Something has to give. By helping each other, and with help from Leila, they are able to get their lives together for one last shot at the championship of the world.
OK, you have seen it all before, but it is done with the just the right amount of newness that it works. It does not work as well as the threesome in “Million Dollar Baby,” because Hillary Swank is a better fighter than Jake Gyllenhaal will ever be, and it does not work as well as “Rocky” because Gyllenhaal would need nerve damage to grimace like Stallone. But neither of those films had Oona Laurence and that makes all the difference.
Forest Whitaker puts out another great performance, but his parts of Kurt Sutter’s screenplay are so much like the lines of the same characters that preceded him that he does not have the room to move.
Director Antoine Fuqua did not win an Oscar for directing the quintessential buddy cop drama “Training Day” (like Best Actor Denzel Washington), but this film shows he is solidly in that class. Luckily for us, he ignored the age-old show-biz caution to never direct a film with either children or animals.
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