“Don’t get hit too much.”
Boxing, along with baseball, is a sport that translates well to the screen. It’s been done countless times. And while baseball is a team sport, each player has separation and focus put squarely on their shoulders. What’s different about boxing movies though are the motives behind the men and women sitting in the corners. The fights aren’t just about the fights or the payday or the belt. There’s always something personal at stake, an aspect either vindictive or redemptive, two qualities which make audiences cheer and root and yell. Southpaw has all of those traits and places them in an oppressively dark and drastically grim storyworld. All of the bad, the falls from grace and the loss of established greatness, comes crashing down. This film is good when it steps back, stops trying to be so original, and finally plays into the clichéd moments with a unique character experiencing them. Southpaw switches up its stance, but by the end it’s too little too late.
World Lightweight Champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is 43-0 and on the backend of his career. His style is violent retaliation, getting clocked in the face again and again and again until his spark lights and his atomic anger explodes. The fights are cringeworthy for his ringside wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). They grew up together in New York, raised by the system and products of a hard youth. She’s always stuck beside him. He’s always looked to make sure she’s in his corner. Maureen does the planning and Billy does the doing, making the money to treat his wife and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to the lavish life they could have only dreamed of. Billy’s safety net, his love, is killed in a tragic accident, and from there on it’s like watching a boxer against the ropes. The world hits Billy, and boy does it like to sucker punch.
Southpaw is a father-daughter story set in the world of boxing. Billy is stubborn, foolish, and a bit heedless. And he loves his little girl. He wants to be there with her, to provide for her, all while his destructive behavior literally pushes her away. Leila is taken from him, his empire falls, and Billy shows that even the most physically imposing of us can still be hit by emotional knockouts thrown by inner demons. It’s a hard journey back to the top for the champ, and while we’re confident he’ll get back there from knowing the systematic and frequented genre alone, we’re not sure exactly how or when. Billy is a hard character to like and an easy one to observe. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but in this case it doesn’t necessarily make you better.
If you’ve seen Rocky, or Raging Bull, or The Fighter, or just about any other boxing movie, you know how this story goes. Forest Whitaker is excellent as Tick Wills and gives this the same kind of devoted trainer-fighter duo as Million Dollar Baby. The movie this most resembles though, in the story but not the context, is 1979’s The Champ. Both movies show us a champion on the bottom, fighting, literally, to win back the affection and trust of a child. Southpaw is a hell of a lot grittier than that old Jon Voight movie though. The boxing itself might as well be a sacrificial ichor battle for the gods, scouring the canvas with more blood than a horror picture. One round like this in real life and you’d be left in a vegetative state. It serves to show Billy’s willingness to fight through the jabs and crosses to get to where he wants to go. The problem with that though; by film’s end, I still don’t think he knows.
Southpaw is worth a recommend for the performance by Gyllenhaal alone. He made an incredible physical transformation when compared to last year’s Nightcrawler. But rather than marvel at the discipline and effort he put into the training, we should admire his withdrawal into the life of an extremely primal man. This ain’t awards worthy work because of the script’s lack of introspection. Still, it’s deserving of a standing ovation. On the other hand, I have to say I was again letdown by director Antoine Fuqua. He’s not adept at shooting action scenes, as evidenced from the indiscernible fights in The Equalizer, and that really diminishes the visceral effect of the matches. His framing is too tight, suggesting a closeness, a breaking of barriers between us and them, and instead it creates a muddled confusion. Even during pivotal moments in the ring, he’ll cut away to something that doesn’t matter, at one point using a split screen during a judge decision rather than telling us where to look. Great directors control and shepherd our eyes, and decent ones like Fuqua only briefly steer them. Southpaw is everything a fighter doesn’t want to be: decent, harmless, and just another one in the books.
“You’ve gotta let her hate you.”
Rating: 3 out of 5