A very routine twelve rounds of tragedy, resilience and redemption, the boxing film “Southpaw” is a conventionally told dramaturgy high on intensity, but low on human insight or novel ways to tell a familiar story. While the word southpaw has become synonymous with being a lefty, in loose terms, southpaw boxing is slightly more complex: it means a pugilist who does not fight in the “orthodox stance.” Which is ultimately ironic since there is almost absolutely nothing unconventional (or complex, really) about, “Southpaw,” a heavy-handed comeback story limited by its reliance on over-the-top melodrama. Originally written as an acting vehicle for rapper Eminem by Kurt Sutter (the creator of “Sons of Anarchy”), while the story evolved over the years, what remains is trailer-trash sensibilities and hip-hop swagger characteristic of Marshall Mathers‘ hot-tempered proclivities, a thuggish mien of volatility and stubborn, poor choices that frustratingly mar the movie’s well-meaning but thick-headed beast of a protagonist.
That protagonist is the unfortunately named Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who grew up underprivileged and ground through the child services system, but overcame his childhood challenges to eventually become the reigning Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Leading a lavish lifestyle, the fighter has it all: a family, a hot wife, a beautiful daughter, a mansion, an entourage, and plenty of riches. But his brutish and undisciplined fighting style — getting beat to the point of rage and then pummeling his opponent in retaliation — is starting to wear thin with his concerned better half Maureen (Rachel McAdams). And any harmony in the picture is quickly squashed after a would-be opponent (Miguel Escobar) goads the explosive, easily provoked world champ. In the melee, as if right on cue, tragedy strikes.
Grieving and forced to cope as a single father, Billy’s finances are quickly depleted when he is emotionally unable to fight and his lifestyle and hangers on drain him. Worse, when his supposed friends abandon him (including an unctuous boxing promoter played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and he drowns in his self-destructive tendencies, his daughter Leila (a very good Oona Laurence) is whisked away into protective care. At rock bottom, and desperate to regain his child, Billy implores a reluctant, former professional coach, Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker), to get him back on top.
But melodramatics consume and undo “Southpaw” at almost every turn (one unrestrained moment of attempted revenge featuring an odd cameo by Rita Ora is incredibly ill-conceived even for this movie). The contrived plot and its execution is something out of a well-shot Lifetime Movie, complete with moments that would likely turn into pure schmaltz if it wasn’t for the movie’s devoted lead.
The drama’s two best combinations are Gyllenhaal’s commitment to character and the movie’s facility with physical brutality. Director Antoine Fuqua excels in visceral intensity and many of the early boxing sequences can be especially punishing. Unfortunately, the movie’s primal force tends to run roughshod over dramatic beats that could use a lot more grace, especially when it comes to family. Subtlety isn’t much of a tool in the drama’s arsenal and much of the narrative tips over into poorly pitched histrionics.
Gyllenhaal’s man-of-few-words, mumbly methodology is also extreme and concentrated; you can feel the volcanic passion and dedication in scenes in or outside of the ring. The character’s interior world is a severe thunderstorm of turmoil and it’s communicated extremely well without much dialogue. But it’s ultimately one note, and doesn’t match the more recent, equally extreme, but more layered and nuanced roles from the actor. Because beyond an admittedly amazing physical transformation, and the propensity for rage, “Southpaw” doesn’t allow Gyllenhaal to reveal much dimension. It should be said that Forest Whitaker is quite good too, but we’ve also seen this temperamental character and performance dozens of times (the less said about 50 Cent the better; he actively hurts the movie every time he appears on screen).
If the overlooked side of boxing is about craft and mechanism, even the poetry of movement, then these elegant qualities are absent, especially in the movie’s first act. “Southpaw” practically races to have McAdams’ character killed in order to devastate Billy Hope and get the riches-back-to-rags story jumpstarted. But her character is a nothing more than a plot point to push the story forward and her demise is both telegraphed early on and treated as an afterthought; this crucial miscalculation feels emotionally manipulative and cheapens everything that follows.
Much connective tissue, both narratively and emotionally, appears to be missing throughout too, as if, even at 2 hours and 4 minutes, Fuqua was in a hurry get back to prizefighting. Gyllenhaal warns his eager-to-be-involved daughter that his comeback fight will be exploited for its sensational narrative: a brawler who is fighting to avenge his wife against the thug who is possibly responsible for her death. But much of this headline drama and lead-up to the battle is never even explored. Likewise, the underwritten child protective services counselor (Naomie Harris) appears to be a victim of discarded narrative threads as her subplot dangles outside the ring. She goes from Jake’s enemy — protecting his daughter from him — to an ally, cheering him on at his final bout, but how she earned this insider position feels like a disconnected “scene missing” curiosity.
“Southpaw” can be occasionally soulful and even contemplative. One emotional father and daughter scene is quite moving, but these convincing sequences are mostly few and far between. Its core humanist dilemmas are far outweighed by sweaty, grueling and customary notes of triumphant mortal combat.
Fuqua also knows his boxing, but as “Southpaw” tries to embrace the contradictions of boxing it runs into its own paradoxes. The sweet science is a barbaric, but methodical sport, and Fuqua attempts to employ both the savage side and mental self-control and strategic aspects via Whitaker’s trainer. But the irony is, as “Southpaw” begins to welcome its tactical smarts it becomes a duller movie. The film’s final fight is curiously staged and feels like a battle of wills from the screenplay and Fuqua’s movie. Instead of a satisfying tale of revenge, “Tick” persuades Billy Hope to mount a premeditated, detached fight with a premium on strategy. And while this fits with the movie’s theme of discipline — Hope controlling his emotions to not only become a worthwhile father, but a valuable fighter — a self-controlled fight is rather anticlimactic and robs the movie of its emotional payback.
Boxing as a metaphor for life is by now pretty cliché; we take blows, we take hits, we get back up again, we resiliently go back in the ring despite our fears. And “Southpaw” embraces them all and never bothers to tell these hackneyed beats in any inspired fashion — lest you think a GoPro camera taking a flurry of wallops is inventive cinema.
Harvey Weinstein once boasted that Gyllenhaal’s performance was going to earn an Oscar nomination— perhaps as a corrective for the actor’s incredible “Nightcrawler” turn being overlooked last year — but the truth of the matter is Gyllenhaal deserves a much better movie than “Southpaw,” one that earns his ferocious performance. If “Southpaw” can frequently brutalize physically, the picture can rarely bruise emotionally or spiritually, and this distinction makes all the difference. [C]