It’s interesting that though boxing is far less popular in the U.S. than it was thirty or forty years ago, movies about boxing keep getting made. Some of them, like Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, are good and have something fresh to say. Others, like Southpaw, are just a collection of cliches.
The writer is Kurt Sutter, and he apparently has seen every boxing movie ever made, because there are snippets of them here. We get some of Rocky, some of The Fighter, some of Million Dollar Baby, some of Raging Bull. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t get caught up in the predictable but exciting final bout.
The story is Billy Hope’s, played by a buff and inarticulate Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s the light-heavyweight champ, who came out of Hell’s Kitchen and now lives in a palatial mansion. He’s married to Rachel McAdams, who also came up through the system, and they have an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence).
Billy retains his title by knocking out the latest challenger, but a few days later at a charity event a tragedy occurs (this is given away in the trailer, but I won’t do that here). He loses the title in his next fight, and things spiral out of control, and he loses just about everything. To seek redemption, he finds a trainer (Forest Whitaker) to help regain his self-respect and just possibly get his title back.
I suppose boxing is appealing to film directors because it is a boiled down conflict–mano a mano. Unlike other sports movies, it is simple to film, since there are two participants and a boxing ring has a timeless aspect to it (team sports also require lots of extras). This film also has another movie staple–the old run-down boxing gym, which is also timeless. In fact, except for the late model cars and some cell phones, Sutter could have set this script anytime in the last seventy years.
The cliches are endless, from the scenes of a man bottoming out (carrying around a loaded gun, crashing his car into a tree, punching a mirror, etc.) to the old favorite, the training montage. Whitaker, who is very good if a bit mumble-mouthed, is playing a stock character, the wise old boxing trainer. I thought about Burgess Meredith from Rocky and Morgan Freeman from Million Dollar Baby. I think if I’m ever at the end of my rope I won’t go to a psychiatrist, I’ll find a boxing trainer. We also get the evil promoter (played very nicely by 50 Cent). There is not one thing about Southpaw that is original. Even the name Billy Hope recalls the film The Great White Hope, and is a bit dangerous–the word “hope” related to boxing has nasty racial connotations.
Yet, I don’t want to dismiss this film out of hand. The final match, in which Billy gets his title shot back, is very well done. The director, Antoine Fuqua, employs a lot of POV shots, in which we the audience get punched, and that works. I won’t give away the end, but knew as I was watching this fight that the winner would determine what kind of film this was.
As stated, Whitaker is very good, and I think steals the show from Gyllenhaal, who went through some extraordinary physical changes. He’s a brute, and though he’s loving to his wife and daughter, can hardly put a sentence together. This is an authentic performance, and it’s hard to believe this is the same guy as the verbally slick character in Nightcrawler.
My grade for Southpaw: C.