Southpaw

Release: Friday, July 24, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Kurt Sutter

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Like its punch-drunk protagonist Antoine Fuqua’s ode to blood sport sure can throw a powerful jab but its technique fails considerably when on defense. What does the film have to defend against, exactly? Only about three decades’ worth of boxing movie cliches. That’s if we’re using ole Marty Scorsese’s Raging Bull as the standard of comparison. We could probably go with Rocky as well, and we could also sit here all day debating which is a better model, but . . . yeah, let’s not.

The easier argument to settle for now is that Southpaw is not as good as either of them. Southpaw is the amateur in the ring, visibly nervous but psyched up to land the first punch. As a truly potent tale of redemption, Fuqua’s latest is about as effective as Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s oral communication following a match. In case you have yet to see this, that’s pretty poor. Indeed, Southpaw is far more convincing reinforcing what should already be a clear message: the sport is violent. A person enters the ring, an oft-unrecognizable mass of muscle typically leaves. That reality constitutes 75% of what’s required of Gyllenhaal here — much to the benefit of a narrative that drapes lazily around this venue like the excessive advertising no one really pays attention to. I feel a little weird championing the film’s violence, but I can’t deny Southpaw is at its best when it goes on the offensive.

Gyllenhaal ought to be relieved that his grueling training regimen for this role is put to good use in three key fight sequences. The story of Billy “The Great” Hope is defined mostly by tragedy and suffering. Big picture: this is essentially the story of every cinematic boxer we’ve watched beat themselves up in an ironic effort to improve their lives out of the ring. Yet there are moments where Fuqua’s emotive direction feels unique, inspired. During a public altercation between the hot-headed Billy and a rival named Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is inadvertently shot and killed, leaving Billy devastated. He quickly spirals out of control, resorting to drugs and alcohol as he simultaneously tries to come to terms with the loss and rectify it by finding the man responsible.

Billy’s inability to cope and his aggressive boxing style don’t remain mutually exclusive for very long. His attacking of a referee results in perhaps the biggest gut-punches, and they come three at a time, in rapid succession: he’s first suspended for a year from boxing. Then goes the beautiful mansion via repossession thanks to the lack of a steady paycheck. Rock bottom is finally struck when he drives his car into a tree, landing him in the hospital and then in court where a judge strips Billy of his custody and sends Leila to a foster home (well, you know . . . for the time being). That third punch is more of a massive blow delivered in slow-mo, as the once-close relationship he shared with his daughter slowly unravels — Leila unable to understand what’s become of her family.

Starting over’s as simple as dropping in on a dilapidated training facility managed by a surly has-been, and asking for help in getting back to the top. Forest Whitaker brings gravitas to the part of ex-pro trainer Tick Wills, who is hesitant to give Billy some . . . you know, hope. Obligingly he offers him a night job cleaning up and maintaining the facility. While there was an opportunity for an upbeat clean-up montage here, unfortunately it was missed; however, we do get the critical training montage, a staple of the genre that dates back to Stallone, wherein Billy finally sees a glimmer of his own last name (does anyone else see the genius in naming the character the way they did?). Crowbarred in after he’s informed by his former fight promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) of an opportunity to make some good money in a title fight in Vegas, the scene at least makes good use of Eminem’s ‘Phenomenal.’

Southpaw‘s grueling fight sequences go a long way in covering up some of the narrative shortcomings. So does another excellent performance from Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately Kurt Sutter’s script suffers heavier bruising than Billy’s face. From poor character development to cliche-ridden dialogue — those representing the legal system perhaps bearing the brunt (Naomie Harris is simply wasted) — the film won’t do much, if anything at all, for those with concerns of it being ‘just another boxing movie.’ The film title is derived from a specific stance wherein a left-handed boxer leads with his right hand and foot. Opposite the southpaw stance is orthodox, one taken by right-handed fighters. I don’t know whether Fuqua is right or left-handed, but I do know his film prefers the orthodox, fighting (suffering?) through flurries of jabs and the occasional hard left-hook. If it weren’t for such enduring work from its cast the film’s all too conservative strategy probably wouldn’t last beyond the second round.

Recommendation: Emotionally resonant tale just manages to overcome its undeveloped and overly familiar story thanks to knock-out performances from Gyllenhaal, Laurence and Whitaker. As a fan of boxing movies, I have seen better but this is by no means, and despite the sheer amount of cliches, a bad movie. It’s just not exactly the title fight we’re expecting to see with a name as large as Gyllenhaal apparently replacing Eminem in the lead. If you’re not expecting much out of the film other than some good fighting scenes, then Southpaw will surely deliver. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t let him take this from you. Don’t let him get into your head. You got one shot. Go southpaw. Go southpaw on his ass. You got to go out there and you . . . beat his ass!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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32 thoughts on “Southpaw

  1. Pingback: 30-for-30: Trojan War | digitalshortbread

    • I didn’t mind this all that much, but couldn’t really give it much more of a high score. Southpaw relies too much on cliches and predictable characterization. Though Jake Gyllenhaal serves up yet another compelling performance. The guy is just on fire.

        • Couldn’t have said it better myself friend. I can’t wait to see him in Demolition soon(ish). Brand new film from Denis Villenueve who I’m really becoming a fan of.

  2. Saw this was in cinema here, decided not worth putting even putting in the effort to go watch. I am not a major fan of Gyllenhall either, so maybe that was a good thing 🙂

    • It’s probably so much easier to avoid this one if Gyllenhaal doesn’t appeal so much. He’s one of my top actors right now so I finally dragged myself to a theater to see this. But it turns out I could have waited. Southpaw isn’t bad but it’s also nothing special.

    • That’s the way I’d go. Certainly not a breathtaking spectacle but Gyllenhaal makes it all worth it. I think this got pushed around a little much when it first came out, but on the other hand there are some very verrrrry tired plot threads that basically drive the entire movie forward. For me it wasn’t quite enough to dismiss the movie though.

    • Hey thanks a lot Dan. It was pretty corny in parts but mostly just forced and contrived in many spots where it was obvious it was just getting through the necessary check-list of boxing movie cliches. Cast definitely did great though, agreed

  3. I really had very high hopes for this, especially as Gyllenhaal has been on a pretty awesome run. Still have yet to see it but I no longer have as much desire to. Interested to read your thoughts on Warrior; man that is an amazing movie.

  4. I was disappointed by this one, but I’d probably go along with a ‘5’ if I was in a generous mood! I did enjoy Gyllenhaal’s performance but as you rightly point out it’s just a mass of boxing/sport movie cliches, from the rival bad guy to the old-time grassroots trainer (a poorly written ‘magical negro’ character) who comes in at the white hero’s lowest ebb. The father-daughter subplot was wrapped up too comfortably and the worst of all was the bit about the young kid training in the gym. Poorly written, but as I said I did like Gyllenhaal and I agree with you that the boxing scenes have enough ‘ooomph!’

    • Southpaw never does anything super offensive, it’s just really really average and predictable. In some people’s minds, maybe being very middle-of-the-road is one of the worst things a film can be, but I don’t necessarily think by playing it really safe Antoine Fuqua should be so heavily criticized. This isn’t super original but the performances make it more memorable.

  5. Liked it a good deal, but as you described, one has to know that this is nothing different than the other boxing movies out there.

    I think it is very hard to offer anything different with a boxing movie, because the sport itself and its most successful boxers are essentially inspiration of the same narrative that boxing movies have been jabbing out to the audience for about 50 years now. For myself, I like boxing a ton so it doesn’t bother me, but if a boxing movie ever does and achieves at offering something different, color me shocked.

    • I know right? This particular sport seems to produce some of the more predictable movies of the years in which they’re released. Sports movies are bad in general though, but boxing seems to have a really hard time doing something unique. Gyllenhaal makes a hell of an effort and the violence in the ring was compelling to watch. I had read some reviews criticizing its ability to reproduce the sport on film, but I had to completely disagree with that. The action is one thing this movie can hang its hat on.

  6. Great job Tom. I think what got me most curious about Southpaw is seeing Gyllenhaal’s performance. Despite all the cliches, it was a decent movie. I liked Whitaker’s characters and the fights were good. Haha, maybe the clean up montage will be a bonus feature on the home video.

    • Gyllenhaal definitely elevates Southpaw; and the girl who plays his daughter is quite impressive too. Whitaker is reliable. So this is definitely a performance-based film which is good because it really has nothing else going on for it, other than the fight sequences themselves. That’s not enough to make it stand out unfortunately. But yes, I had enough fun with it to say I could watch it again. Thanks Eddie!

    • Great to hear man, I think you’ll find no issues getting through this. I was surprised by some of the emotional hits it delivers. Gyllenhaal remains fantastic. 😀

    • I feel like MDB is far superior to this, not just in performances but in the emotional gut-punch. Does it avoid all sport movie cliches? Hardly. But it embraces them to craft a truly moving picture. Southpaw lacks that kind of skill. It’s more eager to show us the blood, the characters and then to get to the climactic last fight. It all works, but it could have been much better. 🙂

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