Southpaw has a committed Jake Gyllenhaal performance, but unoriginality and excess melodrama still causes it to lose by unanimous decision.
It’s not so much that Southpaw is a bad movie. I mean, it’s not a particularly good one for reasons that we’ll get to shortly, it’s more that it is horribly unoriginal. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope – and, yes, that is the real surname that they went with because this is one very unsubtle film – a World Light-Heavyweight Champion boxer who is undefeated, rose up from humble beginnings on the mean streets of New York, and has a unique boxing strategy where he lets his opponent pummel him until he is angry enough to knock them out. He has a loving wife (Rachel McAdams) who is officially very concerned about the beatings he’s taking in the ring, and a loving daughter (Oona Laurence) who wants nothing more in the world than to see her Daddy fight.
However, at a charity event for underprivileged kids – again, this is a very unsubtle film – Billy’s temper gets him into an altercation with up-and-coming fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) and, in the ensuing chaos, Billy’s wife is accidentally shot and killed by Miguel’s brother. Overcome with grief, Billy sets out on a self-destructive path that culminates in him alienating his friends, losing his manager (Curtis Jackson), losing his boxing licence, losing his house, and finally losing his daughter to Child Services. But redemption may be at hand, if he can swallow his pride and get back on track by working for, and eventually training with, Titus Wills (Forrest Whitaker), a no-nonsense owner of a gym in inner-New York City who also coached the only boxer Billy ever thought beat him (although Billy won on points thanks to bribery but that’s not important).
In short terms: Southpaw is yet another tale about masculinity and the effects thereof and… look, I’m sorry, but I cannot muster up the energy to give a crap about films about masculinity anymore. Or, at least, not for another few months. We’re coming off an Awards Season and an early-year period that was drowning in movies about Men and Manly Men and Manly Men Doing Manly Things and How Manly Men Doing Manly Things Is TERRIBLE FOR US ALL and I am just sick to death of them. Every last possible angle for this theme and set-up has been covered and done. There’s pretty much nothing else you can do with it anymore other than go through the motions.
Yet that’s exactly what Southpaw does, even though there are about thirteen different better films sitting on the outskirts of this film. An examination of corruption in boxing, of the lengths that people will go to in order to sell fights, of how the current boxing industry works. Focus the film on Billy’s wife and have it examine her fears about her husband, the love that they share, and her strength, resilience, and smarts in how she effortlessly manages his career. Focus it on his daughter, and follow the events of the film through her eyes and her perspective. Focus it on Titus and his backstory, or on his gym and those who walk through its doors. Anything, quite literally anything, would be more interesting and different than the film we have.
Instead, we get the Southpaw that we were given. And, admittedly, it’s an alright movie. Jake Gyllenhaal is great, surprising nobody who has been paying attention, all seething barely-restrained anger and introverted mumbling, trying to do the very best he can with a role that was once-upon-a-time a Marshal Mathers vehicle. The boxing scenes are really well-done, often convincingly substituting for the real thing, whilst director Antoine Fuqua turns in a solid-but-unspectacular directing job – as is his thing; you hire Fuqua, you will get a technically competent but hollow and entirely unoriginal film as a result. It’s mostly fine.
I mean, with the exception of the heavy-handed melodrama. In what I have heard is par for the course for Kurt Sutter – I must confess to having not watched Sons of Anarchy – there is absolutely no part of this story about masculinity and redemption that isn’t heightened to histrionic excess for reasons that are lost to me. Read over that plot synopsis up top again and try telling me that this isn’t a film going out of its way to pile on baggage in order to make us root for Billy, who is otherwise a really massively unlikeable dick for way too long of this two hour movie. There’s even a character who is introduced, gets about three scenes as a passing sort of reference in the background, and then dies off-screen because… quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine.
It’s a script that tries way too hard. Every time it settles into its middle-of-the-road groove, a ridiculous scene of overplayed melodrama pops up to drag things into a territory where I had to stifle my laughter. Rita Ora shows up as a strung-out and poverty-stricken wife to Miguel for roughly two minutes before never once being referenced again for the rest of the film, the late James Horner’s score reaches into unnecessary grandiosity for pretty much every single scene, and, in the film’s worst scene, Billy’s daughter (whose arc is otherwise decently-handled even if it has a weird payoff) suddenly yells at him, out of pretty much nowhere, “You should have died instead of mom!” Then again, none of this should really be a surprise since Billy’s last name is Hope. That’s the kind of sh*t that smarter heads are supposed to hammer out of budding writers in their first few scripts.
But, yeah, otherwise, Southpaw is fine for what it is. Nothing great, nothing particularly good or anything ,besides a committed Jake Gyllenhaal, but it’s alright. The film we have is alright. Except, well, I’m tired of the film we have. I’m real tired of the film we have. I want new stories, I want new topics, I want new themes. Enough stories about men and masculinity! We’ve hit overload with those goddamn things! The worst part is that Southpaw keeps gesturing to new and vastly more interesting potential stories over the course of its two-hour length, but it’s not only not interested in following through, it actively steers itself back to this course that’s so well-trodden that one needs to keep an eye out for cracks and potholes.
I guess Southpaw is fine, but it shouldn’t be. It should be more, it should be better, and it should be different. Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams deserve more, weightier, and just plain better material than this, dammit!