Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, 50 Cent, Oona Laurence, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz and Skylan Brooks.
Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track after losing his wife in a tragic accident and his daughter to child protection services.
If Antoine Fuqua has succeeded in any way by making Southpaw, it’s confirmation that we do not need another boxing drama anytime soon – or at the very least not one as lifeless, predictable and uninspired as this. It sullies the name of the great ones to even mention Southpaw in the same review.
Having said that, there is no easy way around the pitfalls of the movie without drawing comparisons as to why similar pictures work so well; after all, our appreciation of such stories is driven by what we’ve seen before and where we expect (and hope) originality will follow. The fundamental problem here is Southpaw wants to be a character study first and foremost, with a boxing drama underpinning the emotion, but there isn’t a character written worth studying. Nor, it must be said, is Fuqua the director best suited to handle the ‘study’ aspect, given the decline of his films since the early promise of 2001’s Training Day. Is it fair to compare the film against Raging Bull, an example of when film unequivalently becomes art? Certainly not, but there are many other great modern boxing dramas where Southpaw can be measured and their qualities are vacant in Fuqua’s film.
Forget what happens in the ring for a moment and think about the fighters at the centre of Ali, Cinderella Man, Rocky, The Fighter, and Million Dollar Baby to name a few. The film makers were drawn to these stories, I presume, because of the struggle of the characters to overcome their situation, religion, gender, education, social background, or economic situations. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is 48 and 0 when Southpaw starts. He has a house the size of a small town and cars which most of us can only dream of one day owning. He also has a loving wife who happens to be very beautiful and cares for his well-being. The film shows us he has it all and, like many men who box for a living, he came from nothing. Yes, he takes a beating but that’s part of the job it’s nothing to concern the viewer.
The only way, for dramatic purposes, is down and this is where the film becomes unintentionally funny. His wife is shot and killed at a charity event in a way which is void of any drama; so violent and unemotional, leaving more questions than answers (for example WHY would a gun be pulled in this situation) but leading to a chain of events which coincidentally just happen. He suddenly has no money in the bank (how he came to lose his millions is passed over, we just have to accept it), he hits a referee during a fight like some amateur just getting into the ring, not the actions of man who has made clearly made a career focusing his aggression on the opponent. Yes, he is hurting from the death of his wife but this action was ridiculous to the point where I laughed out loud. He loses the care of his daughter and must prove his sobriety; yet not once are these demons of anger and self-destruction in question before the death of his wife. I wanted to see a character who is holding in his anger at every moment, knowing he is a ticking time bomb who will explode at any moment but there is nothing written in Hope’s character to make us care about what happens to him, just the basic clichés of screenwriting at its most basic and lazy. Moreover, would it have killed Fuqua to actually show Hope doing some of the janitor work he’s paid to do? Apparently, yes.
Once the film loses the audience by underwriting the one character we must care about, the remaining elements are all for nothing which would be a shame if there was some good work going on in the boxing scenes but even these are repeats of what we’ve seen done before and with far more at stake; the hi-def, ‘in the moment’ style of Michael Mann, David O. Russell, and even Sylvester Stallone have all preceded and bettered Fuqua’s attempts to make the action in the ring feel ‘real’ even though I did like the few times his camera appeared to be actually physically punched by the actors (I assume the camera was housed inside some kind of punching bag) and the actors themselves are getting hit. Whilst this goes in-line with modern film making and actors doing stunts and physicality themselves as much as possible, and ensures no one can say the scenes look unrealistic, it also seems this is where all the entirety of the focus was put and nothing left for the character and drama at the centre of what would make the spectacle worthwhile. Jake Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation into the body of a professional fighter is admirable and it’s where the film will undoubtedly sell itself, but it’s all for nothing.
The film, I think, wants to broach masculinity and the ideas around it; what feeds the anger inside man and what does it mean when everything is stripped away from a man like Hope. Fuqua revels in showing slow motion shots of Gyllenhaal roaring and bleeding like an animal in a fight, but falls away from showing us the same attention to what is under this parade of testosterone in later scenes, the scenes which really matter. Boxing is an aggressive, destructive sport by its nature but in Southpaw the blows are for show and the impact is only on the surface, for there is no destroying a character who is never fully constructed to begin with.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter