Release: Friday, July 24, 2015
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.
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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