It’s not incredibly hard to understand the allure that boxing has for many filmmakers. From a storytelling standpoint, the sport has a perfect built-in metaphor to be utilized, as protagonists get beat up by life as much as they do in the ring, but can ultimately find their own version of triumph in either arena. As solid as this is as a narrative base, however, there is an important requirement for any new take to include enough unique elements and interesting creativity to actually stand out and feel fresh, because we’ve seen this drama played out so many times before. It’s unfortunately the second half of this equation that is entirely missing from director Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw, and the result is a feature that is filled with tropes and, more than anything, just feels entirely dull.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. The film follows the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a boxer who has managed to power through a rough upbringing in an orphanage to become one of the greatest fighters that the world has ever seen. He’s married to the love of his life (Rachel McAdams), has a lovely daughter (Oona Laurence), and has a giant house. But just when he’s on the verge of leaving the game for good, he instead finds himself struck with a devastating personal loss that leads to a tailspin involving a boxing suspension, the loss of his entire fortune, and eventually, the lost custody of his daughter. To get his life back on track, he has no choice but to get back in boxing shape so that he can start working again and try to defeat his in-ring rival, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
If you think you have this movie 100 percent figured out by now, the reality is that you do. Thanks to the fact that the film has an exceptional cast, and that the talented Kurt Sutter penned the screenplay, one watches the film with expectations that a curveball will eventually be thrown into the mix that changes the angle on the story to make it something unpredictable, but that curveball is never thrown. Instead, Southpaw is nothing but telegraphed haymakers, content to dump out every boxing cliché available – from the older, cantankerous boxing vet who whips Billy into shape (played by Forest Whitaker), to the typical training montage. Really, the only atypical moment in the movie happens at the very end, and it’s unironically duller than what the standard trope would have provided.
Only adding insult to injury is that Southpaw actually leaves interesting and different plots on the table. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, the scene where Billy Hope suffers his aforementioned devastating personal loss is littered with details regarding who is to blame for the incident, and there is a suggestion that an innocent person is being held responsible for it. Mixing a crime element into the movie could have given Southpaw the exact spark it needed, but instead the film completely moves beyond it in a flash (and doesn’t even address it at the end, where there is clear opportunity).
The only thing that really keeps Southpaw afloat is Jake Gyllenhaal, who again proves himself as one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and puts in another fully-committed, chameleon-like performance. This character doesn’t have the slickness of Lou Bloom from Nightcrawler, or the sharp mind of Detective Loki from Prisoners, but Gyllenhaal sells Billy Hope with passion and rage, and he keeps the audience engaged with his turn from the very first scene. He keeps the film modestly watchable; at least up until you realize where it’s all going.
It’s hard to necessarily call Southpaw a “bad” movie, as the performances are enjoyable, and Antoine Fuqua does inject moments of style when necessary (the fight scenes are effectively impactful). But it’s also neither a “good” movie, nor an entertaining one– and given the legacy of boxing films, it’s hard to recommend.