Written by Kurt Sutter / Directed by Antoine Fuqua / Staring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whittaker and Rachel McAdams
Billy: I still have another two rounds in me.
Maureen: You think you can go two rounds with me?
One might not think that the director who has given us a series of completely average action films like TRAINING DAY, SHOOTER and of course OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN would venture into the sports drama movie genre, but then again maybe it was a natural progression. Antoine Fuqua’s latest feature SOUTHPAW is just as average and unimaginative as his last film, THE EQUALIZER, but will somehow manage to find an audience of either fans of the actors, or boxing enthusiasts. You know a film is overtly dry and formulaic when even a powerhouse performance by Jake Gyllenhaal can’t save it from being forgettable.
This isn’t a modern day ROCKY but it does share some similarities with that film in terms of the struggles of an inner city boxer. Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the light heavyweight champion with forty-two wins under his, um, belt, and the film opens just as he wins yet another fight. His wife, Maureen, played by Rachel McAdams as a very convincing trashy New Yorker, watches anxiously from the audience as her husband gets pummelled and beaten, blood gushing form his face. They return home and we see that they own a few fancy cars, a huge house in the ‘burbs and have a young and intelligent daughter (Oona Laurence) who waits up to hear the results of her daddy’s fight. Fuqua makes it abundantly clear that they are the family that has everything … until one night at a charity event, a gunshot kills Maureen and an unfortunate series of events lands Hope in a small one bedroom apartment, without a penny to his name, and his daughter in child protective services.
The first thirty minutes of SOUTHPAW are pretty tedious, at times verging on rap video glamour territory with fancy gold watches, bikini babes by the poolside and even 50 Cent, who plays the role of Billy’s duplicitous agent. The story that follows is one of recovery from grief and loss of a loved one and personal possessions, the loss of his daughter and a reminder of Billy’s childhood growing up through the child welfare system. There isn’t really too much out of the ordinary that happens in SOUTHPAW that we haven’t seen before. Man has everything; man loses everything; man fights his way back to glory. In fact, almost from the get go, SOUTHPAW is incredibly predictable and offers absolutely nothing in terms of subtext, or social commentary, nor do I think that was even a consideration for Fuqua.
The fight scenes, although really only a few compared to the rest of the story, are well shot, and fans of boxing and probably sports in general, will enjoy the experience of watching a big screen event at Madison Square Garden, or Caesar’s Palace. But these fights are diluted by trite training montages and moments that are supposed to tug at your heart strings. These moments exist of course to capitalize on the great acting ability of the film’s lead, but Gyllenhaal has been in much more interesting films in the past two years (NIGHTCRAWLER, ENEMY); it’s almost a shame to see him in something so mundane.
Sports movies are generally hit or miss, and boxing films are no exception to this. Like a good boxing match though, you certainly want to see more hits than misses. Sure, a jacked up Jake Gyllenhaal is easy on the eyes – and who doesn’t love to see a pretty boy getting his face punched a couple times (or am I the only one?) – but there just isn’t enough here to connect. In the end, SOUTHPAW goes ten rounds but goes nowhere simultaneously.