Note: the trailer for this film – heck, the first line of IMDb’s plot summary – reveals a huge spoiler that would have certainly affected my viewing experience. Avoid advance material (except my spoiler-free review below) if you plan on seeing the film.
Jake Gyllenhaal does his best Mike Tyson in Southpaw, a boxing movie about a tough kid from a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage who goes on to become a Lightweight champion, loses everything, and then picks himself back up by his teeth in an effort to come out back on top.
The actor – who mumbles his line so inaudibly throughout much of the film that I frequently had to refer to the Czech subtitles – is almost too convincing: his street-tough ‘tude and beat-down demeanor are so authentic that they threaten to strip the star of his natural charisma and drain our sympathy for the character.
Gyllenhaal’s performance, however, is about the only thing in Southpaw that feels authentic. The movie’s plotting is plagued by so many how’s and why’s that the filmmakers don’t even attempt to address the issues, sweeping circumstance and character motivation under the carpet.
“These highly unlikely events just happen,” they seem to be telling us. “Deal with it.”
It’s detrimental to the film’s impact, however, leaving far too much for the audience to read in-between the lines.
I never understood the film’s chief “villain”, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez, of TV’s The Strain), who is painted in early scenes as a gate-crashing street thug not even good enough to fight against Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope – and then, months later, he’s inexplicably the Lightweight champ.
Even a tragic incident at the center of the film is obscured, leaving us in the dark as to what exactly happened, and who is responsible, and how the characters should feel about it. Later, the fate of one character is left to a single line of throwaway dialogue.
So much is glossed over here that half of the scenes you would expect to be in the film are entirely absent. In their place are endless scenes of Hope’s torment, the relationship stuff with his wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence), and a social worker (Naomie Harris), and shady behind-the-scenes dealings by a fight promoter played by 50 Cent.
And all this stuff is uninteresting and rather poorly done – surprisingly so, given the talent both in front of and behind the camera here.
But then the cliché boxing movie elements take over, and Southpaw soars. When Hope starts working with trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker, who’s excellent) in an effort to reclaim his former glory and the training montages kick in, we start to become so much more invested in the events on the screen.
A climactic fight between Hope and Escobar is so well done and gratifying that it almost makes up for all the other weaknesses in the movie. It’s a lengthy fight (and surprisingly, one of only a few in the movie), but when everything else is stripped away and all we have is these two guys bashing it out in the ring, we’re incredibly invested in the outcome.
There’s just something inherently cinematic about boxing.
It helps that the fight scenes, shot by Avatar’s Mauro Fiore, look fantastic, perfectly capturing the beautiful ballet that Martin Scorsese showcased 35 years ago in Raging Bull (this might be the best-looking boxing movie since Scorsese’s seminal film).
Southpaw was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has shown in his best films (like Training Day and last year’s The Equalizer) that he’s entirely capable of delivering a gratifying B-movie experience. But this film, written by Kurt Sutter (creator of TV’s Sons of Anarchy), shoots for much more than that. And it misses by a fairly wide margin.
Still, it’s anchored by a strong lead performance and worth it when it sticks to the ring.