You know what the world really doesn’t need? Another underdog boxing story. It’s too bad no one bothered to tell Antoine Fuqua and the rest of the people behind ‘Southpaw’, because they’ve gone ahead and remade ‘Rocky’ for the 167,000th time anyway. The only difference with this one is… ummm… to be honest, I don’t even know. It’s exactly the movie you’d expect from the trailer, except far longer. That’s not a good thing, I assure you.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope, whose name is indeed as unsubtle as it sounds. He’s a successful champion boxer, but depends on rage and the taste of his own blood to give him the kick he needs to succeed. As you may have guessed by that fighting style, his life is a total mess. Luckily, he has a beautiful and endlessly supportive wife played by Rachel McAdams who makes all of his non-punching decisions for him. They even have a perfect daughter (Oona Laurence). Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?
Shockingly, wife Maureen (McAdams) gets shot and Billy falls into a drugged-up spiral. You’d think his manager/promoter might help since he’s played by 50 Cent, but somehow that doesn’t work out either. (Say what?!) Next thing you know, Billy loses his fortune and the state takes away his daughter. Thankfully, he knows of a magical boxing trainer. You know, one of those tough-love types who turns troubled teens into responsible adults. Did I mention he’s played by Forest Whitaker? So yeah, that’s redemption taken care of. Now if only the jerk who shot Maureen was the current boxing champ so that all of Billy’s problems could be solved with one big payday fight. There’s no chance of that happening, though. I mean, that would just be too perfect…
Yeah, ‘Southpaw’ is a movie built on the back of countless redemptive boxing stories. The only surprise to be found in the screenplay by Kurt Sutter (‘Sons of Anarchy’) is the fact that he never once deviates from the most obvious possible formula. Oh sure, you might patiently wait, thinking, “OK, there must be at least one twist coming. There’s no way that the filmmakers think viewers are this gullible.” But nope, this is an Antoine Fuqua movie and he always assumes that you’re stupid. The director has built his career on staging slightly more brutal versions of movies you’ve seen countless times before, and ‘Southpaw’ is the boxing chapter in that legacy. So you’ll see a few more bloodstains, chairs thrown against walls, and movie star faces than you would if the script had been made for television. Other than that, it’s genre storytelling at its safest, the product of nervous filmmakers resting on formulas that work rather than attempting to play to viewers smart enough to guess what’s coming. Fuqua knows where to place a camera so that the images look simultaneously grimy and glossy, though. I guess that’s something.
Fuqua is also a filmmaker inexplicably successful enough to command all-star casts, and that’s really the only reason to consider seeing ‘Southpaw’. The actors commit full-heartedly to their roles in ways that almost drag the melodrama down to the level of regular drama at their finest moments. Whitaker is of course a master of cuddly intimidation, so he’s perfect for a grizzled redemptive boxing coach. (He also amusingly gets a scene explaining his lazy eye, which is a great moment that should have been saved for a better film.) McAdams continues her unfortunate streak of bland roles far beneath her talents, yet has such a naturally compelling screen presence that’s she’s able to make the most of a part that could have come off as an embarrassing male fantasy in lesser hands.
Yet as good as they are, this is the Jake Gyllenhaal show from start to finish. The actor gained muscle for the role and completely changed his physicality to resemble a severed nerve just waiting to be rubbed the wrong way. After playing such a contained sociopath last year in ‘Nightcrawler’, it’s jarringly impressive to see him transform into a slouched and violent dumbbell with a heart of gold. Gyllenhaal is excellent even if the movie surrounding him isn’t worth his efforts. In accordance with Oscar tradition, that probably means he’ll be a contender this year rather than for the movie that actually deserved its accolades last year.
Ultimately, the appeal of ‘Southpaw’ comes down entirely to the work of the cast. There are some strong performances here worth watching. Sadly, there’s really very little worthwhile beyond that. The film has no nuanced characterization outside the ring like ‘The Fighter’, heartfelt naturalism like ‘Rocky’, and certainly nothing resembling art like ‘Raging Bull’. There might be a tradition of genuinely great boxing movies, but ‘Southpaw’ isn’t one of them. It’s one of the legion of pretenders that exist because genre tropes have been established that are easy to copy.