Southpaw certainly deserves some praise: at times its fights – in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope takes plenty of punishment – are choreographed as well as any other boxing movie made during the past twenty years, and it’s easy to get carried away as blows land, sweat flies, blood spills, strings swell, crowds cheer, loved ones wince and another hero of the ring battles back from the brink of defeat. Yet consistency is lacking, and there’s something oddly fake about a couple of the early bouts contained in Antoine Fuqua’s latest film: the use of TV commentators as providers of character back story is hackneyed, not to mention cringeworthy, while at times it’s difficult to accept that the fighter we’re seeing being bludgeoned on the ropes is actually the light heavyweight champion of the world (though a beefed-up Gyllenhaal certainly looks the part).
In this conventional tale of loss and redemption Hope has gained his titles by fighting in the style of a brawler. No-one seems to question just how a professional boxer can win 41 bouts in a row without learning to defend, and despite occasional attempts to make him look as fearsome in the ring as a Tyson or a Hearns, the set-up is unconvincing. Still, it’s the movies, and it’s there to be overlooked. He and wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) spent their respective childhoods in New York City care homes, and thus Billy’s success means they’re now living the American Dream: huge mansion, expensive cars, multi-million dollar contracts overseen by fairweather manager Jordan Mains (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson), etc. etc., though our hero repeatedly points out his family is the only thing that truly matters. However with eye-rolling predictability Billy subsequently loses his title in the midst of losing everything else, including his relationship with beloved daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
Though there are emotionally-charged moments, punchy courtroom scenes and lots of tears, Southpaw is two hours of very-much-by-the-book melodrama, and an upturn in Billy’s fortunes is somewhat inevitable once he has hit rock bottom; Hope is aided in his quest to regain his daughter and his title – forearm tattoos describe him as a ‘Father’ and a ‘Fighter’ – by Naomie Harris’s Child Protective Services officer and Forest Whitaker’s gym trainer, both of whom take pity on the boxer after initial frostiness; in fact most characters here are simply concerned with helping Gyllenhaal’s fighter along as he travels the road from rags-to-riches once again. Cue uninspiring training montages, intense dialogue, a reconciliation with Leila and another crack at the title, with mouthy rival Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) waiting in Vegas. We’ve seen all of this time and time again, from Rocky to Cinderella Man to The Fighter and countless other sports dramas, but I guess it still puts bums on seats.
The work by the assembled cast members ensures that Southpaw is worth a look, at least, and Fuqua should be happy in the knowledge that he has overseen the best lead performance in one of his films since Denzel Washington’s magnetic turn in Training Day. However any recommendation comes with several caveats. Like that earlier movie’s writer-turned-director David Ayer, Fuqua seems unwilling to break away from testosterone-heavy tales that incorporate countless boring scenes of boring men grunting to other men about their boring emotional state or their boring pressure cooker jobs or their boring problems. And the advice that’s grunted back is the usual, predictable, you-gotta-be-the-best-kind-of-guy-you-can-be bullshit. Expect plenty of it.
Additionally, although the gym- and barroom-set scenes with Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are as well-acted as you would expect, Kurt Sutter’s cliche-ridden script isn’t particularly inspiring and there’s barely a line worth reciting in the entire film; in fact such is the predictability of the screenplay you could probably fall asleep for various ten minute periods of Southpaw and still know exactly where you are when you wake up. Disbelief must be suspended when world title fights are arranged six weeks in advance, and more generally the timeframe of the story feels far too short; why not spread it out over a period of a few years, rather than mere months? Finally there are way too many leery, lingering shots of scantily-clad ring girls, the camera often resting on their legs or looking them up and down in a sad, degrading fashion. Gyllenhaal’s body also repeatedly draws the director’s attention (yes…he’s bruised and bleeding and has muscles and tattoos! I get it!) but by way of contrast he’s a male movie star who must sell the film and thus his body is championed and treated with far more respect. When Billy is naked from the socks up and crying on the shower room floor, for example, the camera backs away and rounds a corner, as if to give him some privacy. Rather than, say, repeatedly panning left and right across his buttocks. So why all da shots of da ladies’ legs like dat, huh guys?
Directed by: Antione Fuqua.
Written by: Kurt Sutter.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis Jackson, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gomez, Oona Laurence, Victor Ortiz.
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore.
Editing: John Refoua.
Music: James Horner, Various.
Running Time: 123 minutes.