Going into it, if you know anything about Southpaw, then you know everything about Southpaw. This is a paint-by-numbers redemptive sports saga, all of it on the table from the very beginning, and though star Jake Gyllenhaal gives yet another fantastic, immersive performance as boxer Billy Hope (in case you were expecting any subtlety at all: his character’s surname is Hope), a pugilist bruised both physically and emotionally, he can’t take the rote story anywhere it hasn’t been before.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) is never going to light the world on fire with his stylistic flourishes, but one’s got to admire how far he can stretch his workmanlike aesthetic. Unfortunately, the Southpaw script, from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, can’t stretch a tired plot just as far: Billy is the world champ; he climbed to great heights from humble beginnings in an orphanage; he has a loving wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a precocious daughter (Oona Laurence), and all the money and bros he needs—all of which evaporates in short order, leaving Billy with nowhere to go but up. Fortunately, he finds a wise old near-magic black man, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), to show him what’s really important and light the path to redemption. Sound familiar?
Apparently the details of the plot matter less than the audience experiencing the thorough pummeling Billy receives on all levels. Gyllenhaal shuffles around, partially punch drunk, showing the corporeal toll of all the rounds he’s spent in the ring with an impressive presence. The audience spends a fair amount of time watching this one man absorb punishment—and, with Southpaw clocking in north of two hours, that means we watch Billy get beat up a lot and the film takes far too long to get anywhere. Every stage overstays its welcome: There’s one too many scenes with Billy and Maureen; one too many visits to see his daughter in the orphanage; and one superfluous thread about a kid Billy meets at his new, no-frills, no-nonsense gym that is eventually dropped and is pretty much just emotional blackmail. No subtext exists in Billy’s story save that which is directly pointed out—at one point a ring announcer literally tells you what the subtext is supposed to be—which means it isn’t subtext at all. There is nothing here beyond what you see, which is mostly Jake Gyllenhaal getting punched repeatedly.
Of course, some sweet training montages surround Hope’s matches, but by the time he’s amassed a 43-0 record, you have to figure he already knows how to box. Still, when Tick finally agrees to train Billy—because Tick doesn’t want to right away, per the unspoken rules of this kind of film—he puts him through a series of basic drills that Billy has undoubtedly done many times. This is supposed to be a stripping-him-down-to-the-basics kind of approach which also cements the bond between the two men, but, like the rest of the movie, that never develops beyond a cursory, superficial segment. Even the title is something of a red herring: Every punch Billy throws in Southpaw comes from an orthodox, right-handed stance. The term “southpaw,” as it actually appears in Southpaw, is shoehorned in, perfunctory and ultimately distracting.
And yet, it’s possible to luxuriate in the visceral thrill of Southpaw—until one ascends toward the bland, predictable climactic fight between Billy and his rival, while family melodrama (the plot bears some resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling-cum-child-custody-battle Over the Top) cranks up, though that element dissipates surprisingly quickly.
Gyllenhall’s raw performance is the film’s sole highlight, but even the actor, who underwent yet another profound physical transformation for the role, can only support so much on his broad shoulders. McAdams disappears from the picture before she can contribute much substance; Whitaker goes through the motions of being the troubled mentor; and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays a sleazy promoter, which means nothing more than that he dresses fancily and says things like “It’s just business.” One is the obvious devil on Billy’s shoulder while the other is the angel—and if you’re not sure who’s whom, Tink carries around a Bible. Not that he references the Bible, or preaches lessons derived from it, he just occasionally gestures with it. For emphasis. Similarly, Southpaw is as blunt as a stiff jab to the face.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Oona Laurence, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson
Release Date: July 24, 2015