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Southpaw Displays Neither Patience nor Skill of a Winner

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Oct 23, 2015
<i>Southpaw</i> Displays Neither Patience nor Skill of a Winner

DVD Release Date: October 27, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: July 24, 2015
Rating: R (for strong language throughout, and some violence)
Genre: Sports Drama
Run Time: 123 min
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Naomie Harris, Miguel Gomez

Southpaw, a sports movie about the fall and rise of a world championship boxer, doesn't display the patience or skill of a winner. Instead of building toward a knockout with a clear strategy or discipline, its narrative is built upon so many wild and erratic swings that it lands far more eye rolls than punches. The talent and potential is there, but it enters the cinematic ring in far too raw a state to win many rounds at the box office or the year-end awards circuit.

The film's biggest boast is Jake Gyllenhaal's physical transformation. Having come off the indie psychological thriller Nightcrawler, for which he lost weight to an emaciated extreme, Gyllenhaal bulked up to the level of a light heavyweight fighter. HIs degree of commitment as an actor is impressive but, as storytellers, director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) and writer Kurt Sutter lack the same dedication. Gyllenhaal gave them an authentic physique, and all they gave him in return was a stack of tired clichés.

Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope (even the name is a rudimentary metaphor), a champ who, at 43-0, is on top of the boxing world. He's also a family man with a perfectly-precious little girl, but is also burdened with the typical discontents. One is a cocky upstart contender who calls Billy out during Hope's own victorious press conference, challenging his manhood (the movie's childish machismo quickly wears thin). There's also Billy's loving, loyal, smart, and sexy wife (Rachel McAdams, Aloha) who wants him to walk away from it all before his brain gets punched into concussion-ravaged mush.

Before Billy's able to seriously consider how to address and balance these competing interests, the movie piles on an insane triple-stack of tragedies in quick succession – from a violent murder to sudden bankruptcy to a child custody dispute. Like a boxer who's taken too many clean hits upside the head, Southpaw's plot becomes literally punch-drunk, flailing about in dizzy desperation.

The repercussions of the first two events are dropped from the plot as quickly as those blindsides were introduced, entirely lacking any realistic follow-through for events so traumatic (not to mention legally complicated). These are lazy plot devices – executed in reckless fashion – that exist solely to bring Hope from his palatial mansion to a 300-square-foot apartment in short order. The film doesn't have the depth or resolve to deal with the implications of these tragedies, going from simplistic to preposterous with incredible, illogical speed. The result is a forced, contrived drama – correction: an absurd, overwrought melodrama – in which actions and consequences bear no semblance to the real world.

As Southpaw's second half focuses on Hope's humbly-fought resurrection, the story settles into a more steady and clear-headed tempo; unfortunately, the trite formula remains. Enter the local Hell's Kitchen boxing gym guru Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker, Taken 3) who has, as one would guess, retired from training professionals. But once Hope shows he's willing to commit to Willis's tough love discipline, Willis inevitably caves (after a few bouts of emotional angst) and takes Hope under his wing.

This predictable arc ends up being the film's lone saving grace, as these intimate training scenes are the only moments that conjure some honestly expressed emotions (despite a ham-fistedly symbolism involving the techniques and drills used and the motivational street-wise insights Willis imparts). Whitaker carries these scenes with his Oscar-winning chops, elevating the rote material with a deep emotional range and integrity.

Gyllenhaal rises to these occasions too, but when the other plot threads take him away from Whitaker he's not nearly as adept at lifting the movie above its clunky, embarrassing sensationalism. Meanwhile Fuqua, who's never had a gift for subtlety, sets a heightened tone so absurd that it actively works against Gyllenhaal's earnest efforts. The resulting performance is not enough to grant Gyllenhaal the Oscar nomination that braggart producer Harvey Weinstein has audaciously guaranteed.

At two hours, this slick-but-artless genre picture is too predictable to go on for as long as it does, and too ridiculous to buy into. When it falls back on obnoxious moments – such as when one character screams at another, "You should've been the one that was killed!" – you know the film's attempts at gritty realism aren't backed with any true conviction. As with any excessive form of testosterone-fueled bravado and swagger, Southpaw is too artificial, too high-strung, and too insecure as it tries way too hard to overcompensate for its obvious inadequacies.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Some casual drinking of alcohol. References to drugs.
  • Language/Profanity: Strong language throughout. F-words are used regularly, along with most other profanities. A few instances of the Lord's name being taken in vain, as well as occasional terms that are sexually crude.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Some passionate sexualized kissing between a man and wife while on their bed, as she begins to undress. A naked body profile of a man, but not full frontal as genitals are blocked by a leg. Scantily-clad women appear in the ring at boxing matches, as part of the overall presentation of the event.
  • Violence/Other: A lot of boxing violence, from high-impact brutality, to bruises and bloody cuts, swelling, and vomiting of blood. Some gun violence, but not graphically depicted, along with non-boxing fighting violence. A violent car crash.

Publication date: July 23, 2015