0332 | Southpaw

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.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 123 minutes.
Year: 2015.

Comments 19

    • Stu July 29, 2015

      Thanks Khalid! Yeah he’s very solid in it, though if I’m going to judge him by his own recent high standards he has been even better. I was impressed by others in the cast too.

  1. Keith July 29, 2015

    Yes, something about this movie has kept me at a distance. I was never convinced by the story or the trailers. Sounds like it will be a rental for me.

    Fine review!

    • Stu July 29, 2015

      I don’t blame you. I’ve got the luxury of being able to take a few months off work at the moment, so have plenty of free time…otherwise I’d have waited for VOD. Not a bad film per as but it’s everything you’d expect it to be when you hear the words “boxing” and “movie” together!

  2. ckckred August 1, 2015

    Nice review Stu. I have to say I found Southpaw to be quite a mess. Just about every plot point is a major cliche, from the cartoonish villain to child services taking his daughter. The low point was Hoppy’s death, done nothing other than supply some blatant sob moments in the picture.

    • Stu August 1, 2015

      Cheers! Yeah I agree about Hoppy’s death. I decided not to put anything about that in the review but it was on my mind as I was writing it. As if Gyllenhaal’s character needed something else to be upset about at that stage anyway. Little original here and I half expected to hear him cry ‘Adriaaaaannn’ at one point.

  3. Tom August 2, 2015

    I’m a bit disappointed to hear its a lackluster boxing movie. I think one of the problems is that for a movie on this sport (a sort of mess all it’s own, by the way . . .) to be really memorable is it needs to be something truly special in not just the acting department but from a narrative perspective too. I can’t believe I’m about to admit this, but I’m still yet to see Fuqua’s Training Day as well. So i’m not really experienced with his style of filmmaking but yours is the latest I’ve read that don’t make much of his approach here. Which I guess is why I don’t feel so bad about not having seen Southpaw yet.

    • Stu August 2, 2015

      Training Day isn’t actually that good a film – a pretty ordinary police procedural, all told. But Washington is so good it’s worth seeing for him alone (Ethan Hawke’s not bad either, but not in the same league). But I guess you knew that anyway! Fuqua can definitely direct actors but as a filmmaker I’m not really sold. The only person that has made an outstanding boxing movie that I can think of is Scorsese, and the rest that I’ve seen are good and bad variations on the same story (with Rocky being the pinnacle I suppose). This is hovering around the middle…good acting, boring story.

    • Stu September 25, 2015

      Cheers Mark. I probably went a little too hard on this one but it frustrated me; way too many sports film cliches, among its other faults, and Gyllenhaal’s performance deserved better. But overall I’ve also seen worse, of course! What did you like about it?

      • Mark Walker September 25, 2015

        The cliches were certainly there but for some reason I’m more tolerant of them when it’s a boxing flick. Don’t know why because I tore Ron Howard’s Rush a new asshole for doing the same thing 😉

        Gyllenhaal’s superb performance was definitely a highlight. Other than that it was generic stuff but I kind of expected that anyway and let it wash over me. I suppose I wasn’t looking at it too closely with a critical eye, if you know what I mean? That’s why it appealed to me on a certain (basic) level.

        • Stu September 25, 2015

          Fair enough mate. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to watch a film just for enjoyments sake, without having to write about it afterwards! Have you been going to the cinema a lot during your hiatus?

        • Mark Walker September 25, 2015

          That’s exactly a major reason I took a break from blogging, bro. It was becoming a chore and I found that I couldn’t just let a film be what it is without dissecting it. Sometimes it can be great to just let one do it’s job without pretending to be anything else. I was going to a review of Southpaw and thought “fuck it”. I’ll only rip it to shreds and I really didn’t want to do that as it served it’s entertaining purposes.

          I haven’t caught a lot of recent stuff and, to be honest, I’ve had no desire to. I’ve mainly been catching up with old classics. Rewatched a few like Mean Streets and such and I’ve enjoyed going backwards rather forwards.

        • Stu September 25, 2015

          Ah cool. Always good to go back to that kind of stuff. I found out the other day that the missus has never seen Taxi Driver, so that’ll have to be addressed!

        • Mark Walker September 25, 2015

          My god, man! That’s just not on! I’d be considering a divorce with my missus if she hadn’t seen Taxi Driver. It’s funny you say that, though, as the reason I rewatched Mean Streets is because I sold it to the good lady that it was a young DeNiro before he was famous. She went with that and liked the film. My work was done! 🙂

        • Stu September 25, 2015

          I know, it’s bang out of order but we’re bound by law and I’ll just have to make the best of it going forward! I daren’t ask her if she has seen Chinatown, it might be a question too far.

        • Mark Walker September 25, 2015

          Shit, man! I’ll need to ask my missus if she’s seen Chinatown. I don’t think she has.

          Why is film education always at our door? It’s a huge responsibility!!! 😉

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