Editor’s Notes: Southpaw is out in limited release this Friday, July 24th.
Maybe Jake Gyllenhaal just wanted to get in ridiculous shape. Maybe he and Forest Whitaker thought they had a shot to snag another Oscar nomination, and The Weinstein Company felt like theirs was the studio to carry them to the gold. Maybe this whole group just liked hanging out together. Whatever the case, there must be some frayed logic behind the decision to greenlight and produce Southpaw, which on the evidence of the film itself, is part standard clichéd underdog story and part overwrought disaster.
A startling display of boxing movie clichés, made worse by its relentless attempts to transcend said clichés by compounding them.
It couldn’t have looked good on the page, could it? This screenplay, by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, is a startling display of boxing movie clichés, made worse by its relentless attempts to transcend said clichés by compounding them. This movie doesn’t just employ a recycled formula, it cranks the formula through a meat grinder and force-feeds it to the audience. For Sutter, it’s apparently not bad enough for the hero to hit rock bottom; he must drill through the bottom and dip into the seventh circle of hell before clawing his way back up.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (what a name), a brash middleweight champ with a rough style but a huge punch. Given the title, he’s apparently a lefty, though the film never directly addresses this fact, so I’m guessing Sutter just picked a random boxing term and labeled his movie accordingly. Billy is undefeated at 43-0, and he often relies on a big punch to score knockout victories. So he’s essentially a combo of Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson, except, ya know…white (because of course). After his latest victory, the aging Billy is beaten down – tattered and sore doesn’t begin to describe it. While vicious fight promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) is already prepping a new three-fight deal worth $30 million (“if it makes money, it makes sense,” Jordan says, and it’s unfortunate he doesn’t have a mustache to twirl), Billy’s angelic wife Mo (Rachel McAdams) tells him it’s time to take a break. “I want to enjoy this life with you,” implying – as all angelic movie wives do – that death may be around the corner.
Southpaw redefines the downward spiral, inviting us to cry while its hero suffers through one tragic blow to another, all the while noting his complicity in his own demise.
The story’s turning point presents tricky territory from a synopsis standpoint. There are spoilers galore, but are spoilers really spoilers if a movie willingly reveals its secrets in the trailer? I’ll keep it simple and vague: Billy loses everything. You name it, he loses it. Family, money, respect, etc. Southpaw redefines the downward spiral, inviting us to cry while its hero suffers through one tragic blow to another, all the while noting his complicity in his own demise. It’s an obvious narrative device, one Sutter and director Antoine Fuqua feel the need to hammer home, loudly and repeatedly, until all viewers are adequately beaten into submission. Or, if you’re like me, you will alternately squirm and giggle.
Billy is put through the ringer so he can dramatically rise to the top once again, fighting to regain all that he loves. And that sweet cash wouldn’t hurt either. But before he can reclaim lost glory he must start at the bottom. This means taking a low-paying job mopping floors and cleaning toilets at an inner city gym run by faded legend Tick Willis (Whitaker), who is tough-as-nails (duh) but nevertheless sympathetic to Billy’s plight. Billy convinces Tick to train him for a comeback fight against a young flashy prick, and as the story transitions into a third act of tension and training montages, the film’s earlier pains are eased somewhat, since Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are so damn good together, and Fuqua (who is a good filmmaker) is able to flex some directorial muscle.
The “Big Fight” at the end is compelling enough, though it lacks the blunt force of boxing sequences in Raging Bull or the original Rocky, and there are too many simple shots to the face. The action doesn’t always look legit. And the ending fumbles an opportunity by turning an intimate moment into an epic one, which basically illustrates the film’s primary problem in microcosm. This was certainly intended as an Oscar bait role for Gyllenhaal, and he’s very good, though saddled with some cumbersome emotional moments that are geared to high drama when quiet nuance would’ve been more revelatory. Perhaps he – and maybe even Whitaker, whose performance shines brighter since it doesn’t rely on the outward physical transformation – could still score an Oscar nod as an actors-only showcase. But Southpaw does its actors no favors, since the screenplay throws a knockout blow and everyone else is left wobbling.
Southpaw does its actors no favors, since the screenplay throws a knockout blow and everyone else is left wobbling. Part standard clichéd underdog story and part overwrought disaster.