This review contains spoilers for Southpaw.
The boxing drama seems to hold a fascination for moviegoers that transcends many other sports films, probably because of the intimacy of the sport — just two people, locked in close combat — the brutality of it and the great, flawed characters that we associate with the genre. Can one think of a character from another modern sports film — maybe Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis? — that has resonated like Rocky Balboa or Jake LaMotta? Boxing also seems to wear the “sport as life” metaphor better than other athletic activities, with many of us seeming to feel that “taking the punches and staying on your feet” a much better description of our lives than “hitting and throwing a ball on green grass in the sun” (and I say this as a one-time baseball fan).
The problem is that boxing films pretty much have found a template and stick to them, and that’s the main issue with Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a fighter who goes through unbelievable — in both senses of the word — personal challenges and must claw his way back to triumph and transcendence. The script by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) puts Gyllenhaal’s ridiculously-named man-beast, Billy Hope, through an exceptionally harsh trial by fire, piling one melodramatic beat atop another, dousing the whole stack in a thick spray of sentimentality and throwing not just a match on the whole thing, but a Molotov cocktail.
Billy is a product of “the system” — he grew up on the streets and in orphanages — who has risen to the heights of fame and fortune as the light heavyweight champion of the world. He’s got a sexy wife named Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who also looks after his business, a wonderful daughter (Oona Laurence), a fabulous home, and all the other privileges that wealth and success can buy. But despite his undefeated status, Maureen is worried about him: his fighting style — basically to let the other guy exhaust himself pummeling the hell out of Billy, who then attacks to finish him off — has left the fighter on the edge of serious and long-lasting damage. And she’s thinking that perhaps it’s time to get out.
All that becomes moot, however, when their world is destroyed by a single bullet. There is no way to get around what happens so we’ll just say it: a feud with a would-be contender (Miguel Gomez) leads to an incident in which Maureen is fatally shot. Her death sends Billy into a steep self-destructive spiral: he loses his title in a fight quickly arranged by his sleazy manager/promoter (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), his daughter is placed in a group home, and his fortune and home are taken from him seemingly overnight as he wallows in grief and despair. At rock bottom, he finally enlists a former pro, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who now trains kids in an inner city gym, to help him find his way back to his daughter, his life, and the ring.
This all proceeds at such a fast pace that the suspension of disbelief required for some of it — why do sports figures always seem to be in massive debt? — places a strain on the viewer. And it doesn’t help that Fuqua (The Equalizer) and Sutter play every wrenching new twist in Billy’s life, all of which we’ve seen in boxing movies from The Champ to The Fighter — for maximum emotional manipulation. But three things help keep Southpaw entertaining and even occasionally gripping: Gyllenhaal’s incredible intensity and physicality as Billy, Whitaker’s world-weary yet still compassionate trainer, and Fuqua’s staging of the fights, which focus on the sheer viciousness of the sport despite all the talk from Whitaker’s Tills about the science and calculation of it.
Gyllenhaal and Whitaker do a lot to carry the movie despite the predictability of most of it, but some of the other cast members have only varying degrees of success. Maureen is a different type of role for McAdams and her combination of steely business acumen and devotion to her husband hints at a character that could be more interesting if she didn’t exit the picture so early. Oona Laurence is fine as their daughter, Leila, but Naomie Harris (Moneypenny in Skyfall) is given short shrift as the group home therapist who helps repair the rift between Leila and her father. Jackson, meanwhile, initially comes across convincingly as Jordan Mains, Billy’s manager, but with his limited abilty fails to make Mains — who is first and foremost a businessman — more layered than just a cartoon bad guy.
There is not a moment in Southpaw that you can’t see coming, and that you haven’t seen before in numerous other boxing movies — in a way the film plays as a “greatest hits” album from its predecessors, only with a world class performer in Gyllenhaal singing the tunes. I found myself allowing the movie to take its big emotional swings at me even as my mind told me to dodge them, and your own ability to let that happen will decide whether you go the full 12 rounds with Billy Hope.
Southpaw opens in theaters on Friday (July 24).