Southpaw is a solid but not substantial fight flick
FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Boxing has lost pretty much all of its mainstream popularity over the last couple of decades (the disappointing Pacquiao-Mayweather fight felt more like a last hurrah than a rebirth) but boxing movies are still alive and kicking. There’s something compelling about the subgenre: men battling each other, adversity, and their own demons in a soul-stirring journey. Victories are exhilarating; defeats leave scars. Pass the popcorn.
The one problem with boxing-inspired dramas is that there are only so many plotlines and a limited number of outcomes. And between the oft-belittled Rocky series and Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, they’ve all been explored decades ago.
One could argue Southpaw’s main character, Billy Hope (“Hope,” get it?), is a mixture of both: He’s a simple man but also one with bottomless rage simmering just under the surface.
We meet Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) riding high after winning the light heavyweight title, but before he can even take a shower, we learn some harsh truths about the champ. Hope relies heavily on his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and seems incapable of taking charge of his life. Furthermore, Billy’s fighting style — constantly on the offensive with little concern for the punishment he takes — practically guarantees a short professional career, and his time in the ring seems to be coming to an end.
Then Maureen takes a bullet during a scuffle with a contender (that’s not a spoiler; the scene is in the film’s trailer) and Hope ends up alone. Mentally destroyed, he goes into full self-destruction mode: his fortune vanishes, he gets in hot water with the boxing world and he loses custody of his daughter due to his reckless behaviour.
The only good thing about rock bottom is all the montages that come after it.
Once considered too bland for starring roles (Prince of Persia, geesh), Jake Gyllenhaal is killing it lately. Following up on his perception-shattering work in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal pushes himself even harder in Southpaw. Sure, the physical transformation is striking, but the actor also infuses the character with a complex, fluctuating psychology.
Written by Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter and directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, Southpaw has at least one more thing going for it that most boxing movies don’t: it’s technically accurate. Even though there’s nothing intrinsically new about Southpaw, Sutter and Fuqua can do gritty like nobody’s business. By depicting the nuts and bolts of preparing for a fight, they give the film a sheen of reality that similar movies lack.
It’s too bad the same care wasn’t put into stock characters like the shady promoter (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and the mouthy rival (Miguel Gómez). There are hints of larger stories for both characters, but those go sadly undeveloped.
Overall, Southpaw is a solid effort but there’s little substance to it. Outside of Gyllenhaal, everybody involved with this production should widen their horizons rather than stagnating in the ring they’re comfortable in.