Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a completely predictable but reasonably stirring boxing drama
Although Eminem hasn’t taken on a major film role since 2002’s 8 Mile, this gritty boxing drama was initially conceived with the rap superstar as its lead. Speaking when Southpaw was announced in 2010, the film’s writer Kurt Sutter, creator of US TV drama Sons Of Anarchy, revealed that its story was heavily inspired by Marshall Mathers’ own personal ups and downs. The rapper would play a “world champion boxer”, Sutter explained, “who really hits a hard bottom, and has to fight to win back his life for his young daughter. At its core, this is a retelling of [Eminem’s] struggles over the last five years of his life.”
Eminem initially accepted the role, but then put the film on hold to focus on music and was eventually replaced last year by Donnie Darko star Jake Gyllenhaal. But Slim hasn’t abandoned Southpaw entirely. Although he doesn’t appear on screen, he executive produced its soundtrack, which features two dark and grimy new Eminem tracks (‘Phenomenal’ and ‘Kings Never Die’) alongside contributions from Action Bronson, The Weeknd, 50 Cent – who has a supporting role in the film as a shady boxing promoter – and Joey Bada$$.
While it’s tempting to imagine Southpaw as a ‘hip-hop Rocky‘, it’s never as impressive as Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning 1976 film. Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope is reigning Junior Middleweight Boxing Champion of the World, a streetwise New Yorker who overcame a tough upbringing in the city’s foster care system to become a rich, well-respected sportsman with a smart, devoted wife (Mean Girls‘ Rachel McAdams) and an adoring young daughter. But when Adams’ Maureen is shot dead by an unknown gunman in a fracas sparked by boxing rival Miguel Gomez (The Strain‘s Miguel Escobar), Billy’s life spirals into a black hole of drink, debt and indifference. Eventually, his heartbroken daughter is taken, with cruel irony, into the same care system he went through.
Naturally, salvation comes in the boxing ring and the sporting comeback that follows, though completely predictable, manages to feel reasonably stirring. That’s partly because director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) shoots a series of brutal, sweat-drenched boxing scenes with wince-inducing realism, and partly because Gyllenhaal delivers a consistently gripping performance as the recovering slugger. The 34-year-old, who trained for six months with former professional boxer Terry Claybon to transform into a convincingly ripped Junior Middleweight champion, inhabits single-minded Billy with complete conviction. He’s well supported by Forest Whitaker as Billy’s initially skeptical trainer Tick Wills, but despite their rapport, Southpaw never fully overcomes its limitations. Though Eminem is evidently still invested in this film, it’s easy to see why it never became a true passion project.