Thursday 30 July 2015

Not even Jake Gyllenhaal can save Southpaw, a boxing flick that is both predictable and absurd

Review (contains spoilers)

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
Run time: 123 mins

Like the recent Floyd Mayweather Jr v Manny Pacquiao fight, boxing films often look good on paper but, in reality, fail to deliver the thrills and spills you anticipate. In fact, I remember chuckling to myself last year when I saw this article in the Daily Telegraph supposedly listing the best 10 boxing movies of all time. The fact its writer had to include the ridiculous likes of Rocky IV on his list said it all really – there haven't been many truly great films about the pugilistic art.

I'll give you Raging Bull (a scuzzily perfect lamentation on the fight game) and Rocky (cinema's quintessential underdog story) but, generally speaking, movies about boxing mostly contain hackneyed plots, paper-thin characters, and uplifting, triumph-of-the-spirit endings clumsily telegraphed in the opening moments. Unfortunately, Southpaw does nothing to improve the situation as you'd be hard pressed to find a more predictable movie in this or any year.

Jake Gyllenhaal is light-heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope (Great White Hope – get it?). Despite a foolishly reckless fighting style, he's on top of the world with a 43-0 record, a loving family (wife Rachel McAdams and young daughter Oona Laurence), and a mansion the size of a small country. Raised in a Hell's Kitchen orphanage (something the film tells us twice early on to make sure we get it), he is the living embodiment of the American Dream; someone who has, quite literally, fought his way up from the very bottom to the very top.

But Billy's perfect existence is turned upside down when he and belligerent rival Miguel 'Magic' Escobar (Miguel Gomez) brawl at a charity function. Hope's missus is accidentally shot and killed in the ensuing fracas and it isn't long before the fighter's career is on the ropes, his young daughter taken into care. Broke, suicidal and facing ruin, he's reduced to getting a job cleaning up at a gym owned by trainer Tick Willis (Burgess Meredith Forest Whitaker). Can Hope-turned-dope Billy somehow get his life back together and return to the pinnacle of his sport? What do you think?

Southpaw’s problems go deeper than mere plodding predictability. There are plot holes so big you could comfortably steer Floyd Mayweather's planet-sized ego right through the middle of them. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter (creator of TV’s Sons of Anarchy) doesn't seem to understand how modern American celebrity works. Even at his lowest ebb, Hope – an internationally famous sporting superstar, remember – wouldn't end up mopping floors in some flea-bitten gym, he'd be bombarded with offers for confessional interviews (does Oprah not exist in the Southpaw universe?). And even if Billy’s lucrative endorsements dried up, there would still be book, magazine and newspaper deals, reality shows and TV punditry. Massive celebrity + personal tragedy = big bucks, so if Billy needed cash as quickly as the film insists he does, he could get it easily.

Also, has any fighter in the history of boxing fought like Billy Hope – all offence, no defence – and somehow been able to win 43 fights with no losses? Of course not. It's absurd and distracting enough to yank you right out of the narrative. A fighter with a style like that would have his arse handed to him every time he stepped into the ring – he'd either be beaten senseless inside two rounds or the ref would stop it when the blood started flowing like cheap red plonk. Christ, Audley Harrison would come out of retirement just to get it on with a fighter as wide open as that.

Then there's the fact the death of Billy's wife, Maureen, never appears to be investigated or prosecuted. There's a short scene right after the shooting in which a distraught, blood-smeared Hope is briefly interviewed by a couple of cops but then it's never mentioned again... despite there being numerous witnesses to the incident, including Billy himself. Do the police not bother interviewing Hope again or let him know how their investigation is progressing? Call me old-fashioned, but if my wife was gunned down in public, I might just have a passing interest in her killer being brought to book. 

For all that, there are moments when Southpaw gets it right. Antoine Fuqua – director of Training Day and The Equalizer – could cook up a powerful action sequence standing on his head and his fight scenes here have a real visceral energy. Some of the punches Billy throws and has thrown at him actually made me wince. Outside the ring, an impressively ripped Gyllenhaal comes close to making a fairly charmless, one-note character likeable. There's also an intriguing reason why Hope picks Tate to be his trainer that is mentioned once and never revisited, and Southpaw is full of these little hints of a better film buried beneath the shambolic plotting and, I’m guessing, last-minute rewrites and studio interference.

The idea of two great boxing rivals inextricably linked through tragedy meeting in a bitter final slugfest is a good one. But when Billy gets his title shot and a chance of revenge/redemption it's dulled because Escobar is hardly in the film and behaves like a cartoon character when he is. It's like Hope isn't about to fight a living, breathing human being at the end, it's as if he's going toe-to-toe with Yosemite Sam or Dick Dastardly. 

Billy's big finale also lacks impact because the accident that actually kicked off this unfortunate chain of events was as much his fault as Escobar's, although neither of them were the ones who fired the fatal shot. Yes, the man who has taken Hope’s title belts is a dick and a braggart but that's all he is – he isn't the monstrous big bad required to make Billy's eventual victory truly sweet. Escobar is little more than cannon-fodder, hurriedly reintroduced towards the end to facilitate an upbeat finale.

Hope's real battle is with his self – a man for whom uncontrollable rage is both a blessing and a curse – and whilst that is hinted at throughout the film (especially in a couple of strong scenes with an underused Whitaker) it is never fully explored. It’s symptomatic of a boxing movie that simply fails to land enough of its punches. Southpaw did, however, make me want to throw in the towel halfway through.

Rating: W

Southpaw is in cinemas now


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful


  1. I was planning to watch this in theatre. But now I have dropped the plan.
    The trailer looked quite promising.

    1. I know some people really liked it but, even after hearing a really interesting radio interview with Gyllenhaal in which he spoke very eloquently about the film, it still didn't work for me. Because so much of the story doesn't add up I wonder how much it had been changed/ruined by studio interference...

    2. I really had lot of hope from this film, and specially from Jake whose performance in last film-Nightcrawler-made me fan of him. Ill wait for a while and see it just for fun, without any baggage of expectations.