By Dan Cava
July 23, 2015
The “boxing movie” is enough of a thing that we know exactly what we are talking about when we say the term. Think about it: we don’t have chess movies, we have dramas or indie comedies about chess. “Baseball movie” doesn’t really adequately describe Field of Dreams or Moneyball, does it? But boxing movie? Say the words and a story comes to mind. It’s story about battling your way back to inner wholeness and outer vindication. It’s a story with success in the beginning, failure in the middle, hard choices and hard training at the three-quarter mark, and a really, really important fight at the end. It’s an underdog story, a comeback story, a redemption story. You know, a boxing movie.
Southpaw is a boxing movie in every classical sense, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, let’s dispense with the most common and wrongheaded criticism right off the bat. It’s understandable (and not inaccurate) to use words like “predictable” or “formulaic” as way of describing this film; but to use those words in judgment is a little disingenuous in this case, especially when the movie (indeed, even the movie trailer) so clearly announces its intentions from the beginning. Lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal plays a prizefighter called Billy Hope, as in hope hope. For a boxing movie with a main character named after “a feeling of optimism about the future,” the question is not what will happen– it’s a boxing movie — but how and how well what we know will probably happen will happen.
So again, Southpaw is a boxing movie, where the differentiation is not in the drama but in the details. To distinguish his entry into that tradition, director Antoine Fuqua takes a couple of calculated swings, the most important of which is the casting of the consistently excellent Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Gyllenhaal’s track record of late has been superb, particularly when playing men whose chosen line of work conflicts with their internal need for security. His stint here as a family-man and fighter more comfortable with dealing out punishment than protecting himself from it displays all of the physical and emotional commitment that consistently elevates Gyllenhaal’s work. While the script (wisely) never gives us an origin tale for Billy Hope, Gyllenhaal’s canny portrayal fills in all of the gaps. In his diamond cut body and contained vocal patterns, we recognize the common threads that tie together Billy’s animalistic fury in the ring, his adoration of his family, his working-class agony at a highfalutin charity event, and his anguished silence at a custody hearing.
The rest of the cast is equally as impressive, albeit with less screen time. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) sticks close to the boxing movie script, and most of the supporting characters come straight from the pugilistic playbook. Thankfully Sutter and the actors give them just enough specificity to color their paint-by-numbers positions in the story. Rachel McAdams brings nuance and depth to the mild gaudiness of Billy’s tough-but-warm-cookie wife, Maureen. In lesser hands, Maureen would be a Jersey Shore knockoff, but McAdams plays her from the inside out, making her tight dresses and snappy hand motions seem more like cultural features than actor-y affectations. Forest Whitaker shows up halfway through the film to almost steal the show as Tick, the requisite tough-love gym owner who will never, ever, under any circumstances train a professional boxer, you understand me? After the tragedies and trials of the movie’s second act, Billy and Tick’s inevitable bond becomes the healing heart of the film, and Whittaker’s idiosyncratic performance make this shopworn relationship new and vital. Naomie Harris disappears (in a good way) into her role as the social worker stuck mediating the relationship between Billy and his estranged daughter. Only 50 Cent’s stiff performance as Billy’s fight manager fails to rise to occasion. Then again, boxing promoters are not exactly famous for their soulfulness, so maybe that’s what Fuqua was going for.
The Training Day director has been quite prolific in the last few years, and in 2013’s sleeper hit Olympus Has Fallen and 2014’s vigilante vehicle The Equalizer, his storytelling approach is efficient if not exactly memorable. Fuqua seems to enjoy taking familiar genres and sprinkling them with a few extra flavors while mostly adhering to the recipe. Boxing movie stories are “rise and fall and rise again” stories, and while it is totally appropriate to take us through those paces (it’s a boxing movie!), we can still hope that the filmmaker will find some way to make the look and feel each movie unique to the characters and setting.
In Southpaw, for better and for worse, Fuqua’s cast proves to be his strongest and most distinctive ingredient. While the handheld camerawork is certainly different from the locked down sobriety of The Equalizer, Fuqua doesn’t use it to any particular advantage or disadvantage in Southpaw. There are a handful of visual flourishes, like a few key closeups of Jake Gyllenhaal’s enraged visage, but for the most part the camera just gets the “gritty drama” job done. The story’s smaller emotional beats are often quite special (a joke between husband and wife, a shared drink between fighter and trainer), but when that specialness is absent, the broader story points feel more perfunctory than even the boxing movie tradition demands they be. For every familiar moment that has been heightened by texture and tangibility, there are others that merely feel familiar. There’s a noticeable slump while we wait for the “Billy’s fall” part of the movie to carry us from the early departure of a great actor like Rachel McAdams to the arrival of the next great actor, Forest Whitaker. Sometimes the HD digital cinematography gives the fights a visceral intensity, and other times we feel like we’re watching a pay-per-view rerun. The obligatory training montage is probably the worst offender, with a mediocre Eminem song interrupting the late James Horner’s unobtrusive score to suddenly remind us of things like product tie-ins and soundtrack sales.
Despite the missteps and muddled moments, Southpaw lands more punches than it misses. When the movie’s second half clicks into gear, the strong performances and the general pull of the formula take over, and the impulse to watch our struggling hero punch his way back to his family becomes irresistible. We wince at the hits our hero takes, hold our breath when he falls, exhale when he gets up (as the ref counts “nine”!), and cheer when he lands that sweet, sweet uppercut. Because in the end, that’s what we are there to see, and the movie delivers on the basic promise of its premise. Southpaw is, after all, a boxing movie.