Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter, Southpaw features several great performances and some topnotch boxing scenes. However, does it bring anything new to the well-trodden genre?
The story follows boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a champion fighter at the top of his game. However, Billy is getting a little long in the tooth and has a habit of stopping his opponents’ punches with his face. His wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), wants him to take a break and just enjoy what they have before he becomes a punch-drunk has-been. His promoter, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), wants him to sign another three-fight deal with HBO. Also, Billy feels the pull to prove himself against a mouthy challenger, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who feels as though Billy is ducking him and his title bid. After a charity event, Escobar challenges Billy and a gun goes off. The stray bullet kills Maureen and Billy is left to raise their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), by himself. Jordan talks Billy into signing the HBO deal, but he loses the first fight, offering little resistance as he continues to grieve. Just like that, Billy is broke and the state takes Leila away from him after he goes off the deep end in his mourning. He seeks out the help of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a trainer who trained the only fighter to truly beat Billy, who ended up winning in a fixed decision. Wills is a hard taskmaster, but he takes Billy on. Meanwhile, Billy tries to mend fences with Leila and win back not only custody, but her love as well. How do you think it ends?
That last question is kind of the point of Southpaw. This isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Move the pieces around a little bit and you have Rocky III. The keyword for me while watching this film was overwrought. The tragedy piled up so fast and so easily, it almost became comical. Maureen was clearly Billy’s de facto manager, but she apparently did a horrible job since shortly after her death, he ends up broke. Part of the reason he ends up broke is because of his actions in his failed title defense—he head butts a ref and faces lawsuits—but he was already on the ropes before that. Clearly Jordan was stealing money from him, but that bit was unnecessary—and largely ignored in the story. All the filmmakers had to do was have Billy get sued and explain his lost fortune that way. Instead, they rip off Rocky again by borrowing from Rocky V, where Rocky lost his millions. By taking that route, the filmmakers not only re-hash a film that has been out for decades, but they also cheapen Maureen as a character, since she was always looking out for Billy. Side plots are also introduced and tossed aside casually, which makes it look like Sutter was just trying to beef up his thin story with unnecessary plot. Also, the fact that they never find Maureen’s killer is ridiculous. The incident happened at a charity event, not randomly out on the street.
However, the boxing scenes are really well done and Gyllenhaal clearly threw himself into this role. As a sports movie, it hits all the right buttons and the audience will root for Billy even though the film’s endgame is never in doubt.
The performances from Gyllenhaal, McAdams, and Whitaker are all very good. 50 Cent plays the sleazy boxing promoter to a tee, but I couldn’t help being reminded of The Great White Hype. Laurence does very well as Leila, but I didn’t think her part was written very well. Leila comes across as a “movie child,” in that she’s adult when the filmmakers need her to be and a child when it suits them. I guess the audience is supposed to believe that she’s the adult in the relationship with Billy, but it’s not a thread that’s followed all the way through. Naomie Harris does a fine job as Leila’s caseworker, but she doesn’t do much besides tell Billy that Leila doesn’t want to see him.
Overall, Southpaw is just echoes of the past and something we’ve all seen before. There’s nothing really new here and it’s a shame because there was a real opportunity to forge a new boxing legend for the modern day. The performances are really well done for the most part, but it’s not enough to escape shadowboxing with the Rocky series.