Film Review – Southpaw
One last fight… One final chance to redeem himself… The need to battle inner demons in the ring… A brutal test of stamina to see if he can go the distance…All of these boxing cliches and more are very present in the new sports drama Southpaw.
Antoine Fuqua directs this very standard story of a cocky, brutal boxer who at the beginning of the film defends his undefeated record as the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Jake Gyllenhal as the champ Billy Hope fully commits to the role of an aggressive fighter of limited vocabulary and a short fuse. His anchor in life is his wife played by Rachel McAdams and his young daughter (Oona Laurence). They’re living a high rolling life in a gorgeous mansion with fancy cars and expensive Cartier watches he gives to his friends. And of course there is also a rival boxer who wants to challenge his title.
One night at a gala benefit dinner the loud mouthed challenger talks smack to the champ, pushes him over the edge to starting a fight, a gun goes off, and his wife pays the price. This starts Billy’s downward spiral that ends with his being destitute and separated from his daughter. So of course, he has to find one last shot at redemption for a big championship bout with the help of a grizzled, no nonsense trainer played by Forest Whitaker.
If that plot sounds hauntingly similar to half of the Rocky movies or any other of the countless sports movies you’ve seen in your life, you aren’t wrong. All of the common tropes are here. The fighter has to learn to control his temper. Whitaker’s trainer character doesn’t want to train professional boxers at first but ends up relenting given the tenacity of our hero. The mumbly emotional scenes between Billy Hope and his wife are reminiscent of Rocky and Adrian when they were courting. During the training scenes in Whitaker’s grungy low budget gym you can practically hear Burgess Meredith screaming “You’re an animal!”
The main strength of this film is Gyllenhal. He has become one of our best and I think most underrated film actors. Last year he was phenomenal in Nightcrawler as a truly terrible papparazzo. In the shamefully mostly forgotten End of Watch both he and Michael Pena are amazing. Of course we all loved him in Brokeback Mountain. This guy is both charismatic and dangerous on screen. As Billy Hope in this film, the way he moves is beastly. He has the look and gait kind of like a bear. His manicness in the opening fight of the film is almost scary. This role is reminiscent of Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher where contained confusion and rage is conveyed through full body movement more than words. So this guy is worth watching.
Also, the supporting cast is quite strong. Forest Whitaker is often the best thing in sub-par material. Even though every move he makes in this story is very predictable, the actor at least infuses it with some life. McAdams is genuine as Billy’s wife who initially seems like a trophy wife but is quickly revealed to be a truly supportive partner. 50 cent has a supporting role as an opportunistic promoter and isn’t half bad.
Director Fuqua is capable of making genuinely good film. Training Day was pretty terrific and earned Denzel Washington an Oscar. But Southpaw seems to be continuing his recent spate of unsurprising genre fare that ran from Olympus Has Fallen through The Equalizer to this. These movies are decent financial successes and somewhat entertaining popcorn movies. But they aren’t very challenging. Southpaw is firmly in this vein as well.
Also, a very tired plot line in stories like this is the formerly rich guy losing everything. He goes from mansions, Dom Perignon, and Ferraris to suddenly trying to make rent in a rat infested studio apartment. I get that even famous people run into issues like this. I understand that the rich get swindled or careless and can end up down on their luck. But it also seems like there are other states of being between fabulously wealthy and destitute on the verge of homelessness. There are SOME people who are able to live on less than $30 million dollars a payday without begging for change. If you have $100 million and then you only have, say $1 million dollars, yes, it would be heartbreakingly frustrating. But you wouldn’t be out on the street. You might have just live in a normal house. Or drive a sensible car. Or go to the supermarket for food. But instead Hollywood drags out this tired cliché of the formerly rich guy suddenly having absolutely nothing.
Southpaw is frustrating. The performances are strong and heartfelt, especially the lead. The fight choreography is fun and graphic. The production itself is good. But the story is definitely one you’ve heard before.