Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama could have used more training days
It sounds oxymoronic for the sport of boxing to be called the “sweet science.” For many, it is organized hand-to-hand fighting. Brutal and barbaric. But it is also skillful and athletic. Like a chess match, where opponents use strategy and forethought in order to deliver a punishing blow.
Sadly, Southpaw is about as sweet and strategic as a girl walking inside a boxing ring, holding a card to let you know what round it is. It has good intentions but mainly recycles moments and tropes that have worked in boxing classics like Rocky and Raging Bull.
Much like the main character, the film is more than a little rough around the edges. For the amount of attention put into the boxing sequences where blood flows and sweat stains the mat, the smaller moments should have been more compelling.
A product of a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has risen above his harsh beginnings to become a boxing champion with an unblemished record. Maureen (Rachel McAdams), herself a foster-care child, is his devoted wife and someone who may have once been caught up in the lifestyle that comes from being married to million-dollar athlete. Now she is concerned for Billy’s well being, finding it hard to sit ringside and watch him get pummeled. Maureen wishes his latest victory to be his last fight so he can be preserve moments and memories with daughter Lelia (Oona Laurence).
Billy suffers a fall from grace when baited by challenger Miguel (Miguel Gomez) at a charity function. Miguel tests Billy’s hot temper that sees a short scuffle and a gun drawn and Maureen caught in the line of fire. The tragedy leaves Billy in a haze and conveniently without money due to mismanagement on account of his fight promoter Jordan (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), who abandons the prizefighter to manage Miguel. When Billy watches the court take his daughter away to reside in the same foster system that he himself was a product, the pain and indignation that comes from being a penniless pugilist is apparent. His only shot at redemption and starting over is with the help of Titus (Forest Whitaker), a boxing gym owner and trainer who decides to help Billy get back on his feet and repair his life.
Southpaw begins with Billy on top and narrowly defeating his latest opponent. Miguel pops in to goad the champion to a title fight, which is rebuffed at a post-match press conference. Billy’s approach to boxing is built on an unstable foundation of rage and power; he does not bob or weave. When his rage meter reaches full tilt he goes on the offense to do what he can to salvage the fight and retain his championship.
Fighters fight and they don’t know when to leave well enough alone. We’ve seen this before. An athlete unable to walk away from the sport. The risk of injury is always there but in the sport of boxing there’s a heightened factor. Billy’s stutter is a telling sign that his days of blows to the head have taken a toll. But writer Kurt Sutter fails to address this and the times he does bring up punch-drunk aspects they are sidestepped or forgotten entirely.
Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy, has a difficult time in contextualizing our hero’s journey on the path of redemption after losing everything. The first act quickly breezes through Billy’s dizzying downfall. From millionaire to complete destitution in a matter of weeks, apparently someone with the production forgot to acknowledge how personal bankruptcy actually works. Then there’s the matter that goes unresolved: the murder of Billy’s wife. The case is ignored, despite dozens of witnesses, a public setting and physical evidence which one presumes had to have been collected and analyzed by New York’s finest.
The characters are painted with broad strokes. Jake Gyllenhaal, who is the sole reason to seek out Southpaw, if only to marvel at his transformation from the emaciated Lou Bloom of Nightcrawler into a pugilist with rock-hard abs, has little in the way of growth. Forest Whitaker, whose past battles with alcohol are played for laughs, is a calming presence next to Gyllenhaal’s rage-filled physicality. Even so, his arc is shortsighted as a trainer who opens the doors to his gym to troubled youth and homeless teens.
Southpaw offers no surprises in telling its story about a boxer rebuilding himself. We have a shady manager (50 Cent makes Don King look regal by comparison), the reluctant trainer, and the suffering wife. The added wrinkle of having a ten-year-old daughter end up in foster care is a new angle for rehabilitation, then again she blames dad for their separation.
I’ve been critical of Antoine Fuqua as a filmmaker, believing that his style doesn’t always fit the story he’s been hired to direct. Riding the success of 2001’s Training Day thanks to Denzel Washington playing against type and David Ayer’s (End of Watch, Fury) keen ear to cop speak and the subject of dirty cops, Fuqua has reimagined the legend of King Arthur, made a Brooklyn cop drama ensemble piece (Brooklyn’s Finest), before finding his greatest niche as an action movie gun-for-hire with Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer.
Southpaw is a new area for Fuqua but he approaches it as he has projects in the past with placing an emphasis on the visceral and not enough on the emotional; the superfluous camerawork is distracting in its attempts to create moments. Much like Billy, Fuqua is reckless in the ring, allowing his punch/camera to do most of the talking instead of allowing for sincerity.
It all builds up to an underdog rematch finale, which is to say Sutter and Fuqua have re-envisioned Rocky III. Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation is amazing for cinephiles familiar with his work over the last few years. Outside of that, Southpaw only displays enough heart to mildly recommend. If it only had the brains to make it a contender.
Director: Antoine Fuqua Writer(s): Kurt Sutter Notable Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis Jackson, Oona Laurence
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!