Film / Reviews

'Southpaw': Boxing that lacks punching power

by Kaori Shoji

Just because you’ve seen this story before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it again … I think. “Southpaw” is an excessive, some may even say maniacal, retread of boxing movie classics such as the “Rocky” franchise, “The Fighter” and “Raging Bull. But it’s so well performed and extravagantly financed you almost forget to complain about those glaring similarities. The wife isn’t named Adrian, but she might as well as well be, judging by the way Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal — with kickass abs) can’t seem to do anything without asking her first.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Equalizer”), “Southpaw” is essentially a “bro flick” masquerading as one aimed at women, and it actually winds up slightly disappointing to both camps.

For women, Billy’s wife Mo (Rachel McAdams) is potentially interesting and inspiring, but she exits the narrative far too soon and leaves little impression other than that of the typical ever-patient helpmate of a fighter husband. The remaining female cast includes Billy’s 10-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) and by-the-book bureaucrat Angela (Naomie Harris), who’s in charge of putting Leila in Child Protective Services. Other than that, women are pretty much elbowed aside to make way for the main machismo boxing story — which is, of course, the tale of Billy’s comeback after a tragic turn of events deprives him of his world-champion title, family and just about everything he owns.

Southpaw
Rating
Run Time 124 mins
Language English
Opens JUNE 3

“Southpaw” then hits every boxing movie signpost — the morose but sincere trainer with a heart of gold, badass opponent with a filthy mouth, hundreds of hours jumping rope — with ardent enthusiasm. There’s almost nothing here that makes “Southpaw” unique aside from the soundtrack featuring Eminem’s latest song. Eminem, whose turbulent life has been cited as the inspiration behind the film, doesn’t make an appearance, though. Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, goes far beyond the call of duty in his role. But even his powerhouse performance and impressive fighter moves lose momentum after the first hour and the foregone conclusion rears in the near distance like a neon billboard.

Of course Billy will prevail, and the screenplay (penned by Kurt Sutter) never pretends otherwise. Despite having been canned by his manager (Curtis Jackson aka 50 Cent), at risk of losing his daughter and plumbing the depths of agonizing loneliness, Billy still has his eye on a huge, gleaming trophy waiting for him at the other end of the tunnel.

Maybe this is a generation thing, or I have watched “Rocky” a few times too many, but I believe suspense is crucial to enjoying a boxing movie. There will always be blood, guts and redemption. Whose victory will it be though? There should always be room for doubt.

“Southpaw” reminds you of the history and longevity of the boxing film genre. Moviegoers have been fascinated by man’s show of crude physical force since the 1930s. In 1976, when Rocky was training to “go the distance” with Apollo Creed, men with his mentality seemed fairly common. Now, Billy Hope comes off as a rarity — uninterested in smartphones and other mod-cons of life, unmotivated by profit or security.

It’s revealed that Billy Hope grew up in an orphanage and had clawed his way to success. Mo was also a foster child, and so the couple had sworn to give their daughter a happy, love-filled childhood. Never mind that Billy has no real idea of what that requires or entails. All he knows is that in order to make that happen, he must train countless hours and spit up his guts in a boxing ring.

“Southpaw” may not bring anything new to the table but there’s a nostalgic comfort in watching Billy — a hardened stereotypical male who is willing to risk disastrous injury for love and glory both in and outside the ring. These days, that type of man is increasingly rare.

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