‘Southpaw’s’ strong performances cannot outbox ring clichés
By Bob Bloom
“Southpaw” is a solid and violent boxing feature that leans more toward middleweight status than the heavyweight class of such classics as “Raging Bull” or “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”
The movie chronicles a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a champion at the pinnacle of success, who, after a tragedy, loses everything and must conquer his rage and doubts to overcome despair and redeem himself.
The fall-from-grace storyline is a familiar angle in boxing films: Sylvester Stallone used it in his “Rocky” franchise and it has been a staple of the genre as far back as the 1930s when Warner Bros. and other studios were churning out such films as “The Champ,” “The Life of Jimmy Dolan” and “They Made Me a Criminal.”
The major difference between these earlier films and “Southpaw” is that the
ring sequences in the latter are more bloody and brutal.
Though the cinematic territory is familiar, Gyllenhaal’s performance sets the film apart. Hope’s scarred face and battered body speak volumes of the toll he has taken to fight his way to the top of his profession.
His speech is slurred — at times, almost incomprehensible — and his world seems to be confined within the dimensions of the canvas on which he works.
His life outside the ring centers on his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and young daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). After tragedy tears his family apart, Billy cannot cope and loses everything.
He turns to trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to help him find himself and prepare him for a return to the ring.
“Southpaw,” directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Kurt Sutter and Richard Wenk, is bleak — at times morose — where it should be dark, or at least suspenseful.
The movie cannot overcome the clichés that constantly jab at the storyline as quickly as Muhammad Ali in his prime.
We’ve seen this scenario so many times before in sports-related features that we know where the movie is headed, who Billy will have to fight for salvation and how the story will end.
What saves “Southpaw” are the performances of Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and Laurence, as well as the set pieces inside the ring, where Fuqua graphically displays the punishment these men endure to earn a hefty purse.
Many of the supporting characters, especially Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Billy’s manager — who drops him the minute he falters — are cardboard stereotypes.
“Southpaw” is a vehicle in which the major cast members overshadow the weak material. The film does have an edge to it, but not enough to make it a memorable addition to the genre.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.
2½ stars out of 4
(R), violence, language, adult themes