Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Premise: Boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his wife in a random act of violence. This sends him into a tailspin causing the fighter to lose custody of his daughter. Returning to the neighborhood where he started, Billy attempts to regain his edge.
What Works: The best aspect of Southpaw is its family story and it succeeds on the strength of the movie’s central performances. The film is led by Jake Gyllenhaal as boxer Billy Hope. Gyllenhaal has been on a tear recently with performances in Nightcrawler, Prisoners, and End of Watch that are far and away better than anything he has done previously in his career. In Southpaw Gyllenhaal stretches himself again as a character who is much different from the likable good guys he typically plays. Boxing champ Billy Hope is a violent and inarticulate mess of a man. He isn’t very bright but Gyllenhaal plays him with dignity and humanity. He’s a man who has come from the streets and is a product of the social services and criminal justice systems. Southpaw has a very effective irony in that this man has escaped the ghetto and lives the high life but finds himself and his family back in the system he thought he had escaped. Rachel McAdams plays his ill-fated wife and although she isn’t in it very long McAdams makes an impression that carries through the rest of the picture. Also notable is the performance by Oona Laurence as their daughter. The scenes between Laurence and Gyllenhaal are many of the best parts of the movie and the young actress shows tremendous nuance in her scenes. Southpaw is also very well shot. There is a gritty and grimy visual texture throughout the movie. The boxing action is generally well staged especially in the way that it conveys the trauma on the fighter’s bodies.
What Doesn’t: Ironically, Southpaw is a boxing movie in which the boxing is the least compelling aspect of the story. Anyone who has seen a boxing movie will recognize a lot of the clichés that litter this picture. The filmmakers borrow especially heavily from Rocky II and III. This movie has plot beats and even whole sequences that are right out of the middle chapters of Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion series, in particular the way a boxer loses his edge and goes back to basics to relearn how to fight. The training and fighting sequences just have too much in them that is familiar from other movies. The filmmakers of Southpaw disadvantage the fight scenes because of some bad storytelling decisions. In good sports movies the main event is the moment of truth; it is what the entire story is building toward. The competition can’t just be about scoring points and landing punches. Something deeper has to be at stake in the fight but the script of Southpaw messes that up. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character returns to his old neighborhood because he has lost everything and the court orders him to clean up his act before he can reunite with his daughter. The child is essentially the carrot that motivates the hero to act. But the rehabilitation of Gyllenhaal’s character does not have any clear benchmarks. There’s nothing, not even a montage, that visualizes his recovery. And then the circumstances of the script actually reward the boxer prematurely by giving him his daughter back before the big fight. As a result the movie doesn’t have anything at stake in the climax and so the tension in the finale is deflated. As good as Gyllenhaal is, his casting is problematic for the movie. The professional boxing field is dominated by men of color and in many respects Billy Hope is coded as a racial minority but he is played by a white actor. Gyllenhaal does a good job but there is also the sense that he is in a role that was probably written for someone of a different ethnicity.
Bottom Line: The dramatic content of Southpaw is much more impressive than the boxing. The actors are very good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal, but the movie suffers from a lot of basic storytelling mistakes.
Episode: #554 (August 9, 2015)