I still remember when I saw the first promo pic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloodied, ripped body for Southpaw, and turning gay for a second or two. Gyllenhaal had been in pretty good shape for Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs, though the intense boxing training he underwent for Southpaw took his physique to a level that even earned praise from the world’s most renowned bodybuilder, The Terminator himself (during a joint appearance on the Graham Norton Show).
What excited me more than Gyllenhaal’s physique was the promise of a genuinely good boxing movie. As an avid fan of the sweet science, I know just how rare boxing movies are, and how virtually non-existent good boxing movies are. But Fuqua has proven himself to be a skilled director through stellar efforts such as Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, and the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal was coming off a downright phenomenal performance in Nightcrawler. Surely the two of them together could produce some magic.
Or so I thought.
And so it pains me to say that Southpaw was a huge disappointment, probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Despite packing so much promise, the film turned out to be a two-hour cliche fest filled with predictable plot points, stereotypes and unrealistic depictions of the boxing world. Not even Fuqua’s solid direction or Gyllenhaal’s abs could save it.
The story revolves around Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a hard-nosed, temperamental world champion light-heavyweight boxer raised through Brooklyn’s tough orphanage system with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams). All boxing movies are ultimately underdog stories, and Southpaw is no different, regardless of whether the protagonist starts from the bottom or from the top.
I don’t want to divulge much more about the plot than that, though if you’ve seen a single trailer or read any reviews with spoilers (most of them have) you’ll pretty much be able to guess all the main plot points from start to finish. Actually, you might be able to do that even if you haven’t.
There were multiple times during the film when I thought, I hope cliche X doesn’t happen next because it sure looks like it’s gonna happen! And then of course, BOOM, it happens exactly the way I feared. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly where you’ve seen specific plot points or scenes before, but it will all certainly feel very familiar. For some audiences, that safe feeling of predictability is welcome, but for me it was a low blow.
My problems with the movie really begin with the title, Southpaw. As a natural left-hander myself, I was hoping to see a southpaw protagonist as the title suggests. But guess what? The title is misleading! It’s not completely irrelevant to the story, but it’s almost as though they thought, hey, Southpaw would be a nice name for a boxing movie, nearly finish filming it, and then suddenly realise, Oh shit, we need to do something about that title! (The real reason is because the film was originally written for Eminem, a lefty in real life).
Next, I found the world in the movie to be lacking in authenticity. It’s hard for me to get into details without giving away spoilers, but essentially the boxing world that is depicted in the film is not how things work in real life. Not for big time boxing stars in the modern era (and that’s what Hope is — white, undefeated, exciting style, good-looking, etc). Everything from the promotional aspects to the financial aspects is manipulated to suit the narrative, and it sticks out like dogs balls for people who know a thing or two about how the frustratingly rigid fight game works these days.
These are just some general comments and not spoilers, but basically top-tier pay-per-view events need at least several months to promote. Even the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the biggest fight in boxing history, had about three months, and that was regarded as the absolute minimum even taking into account that the fight didn’t need a typical promotional tour because it would sell itself. Top-tier PPV draws and their promoters — on both sides — would not take on megafights at short notice (you need at least an eight-week training camp). Popular former champions — especially those still in their physical prime — wield considerable clout in the sport and will have no problem finding a manager or setting up a fight people will pay to see. And the amount of money PPV stars make these days is easily in the millions per fight, and if you’ve had a long and successful career you’ll be set for life many times over. We’re not even talking about the generational stars like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who have in excess of US$400 million each in career ring earnings. Even second-tier or third-tier guys a lot of casual fans might not have heard of, like Paulie Malignaggi from Brooklyn, who boasts a modest career record of 33-7 (with 7 KOs) and generally fights on the undercards of big bouts, has an estimated net worth of about US$8 million. I’m not saying that the film ignores all these things completely, but just that it glosses over them with convenient cliches.
And for all the talk about brutally realistic boxing sequences and really getting punched, I actually didn’t find them that authentic. Kudos for getting real HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and using the same cameras as the PPV telecasts, but if you watch a lot of real boxing you might think some of the fight scenes in Southpaw look quite choreographed. Not all of them, but the close ups in particular look very methodical. It might be the slightly exaggerated reactions to the punches or the studio-made sound effects, or perhaps it’s the stark contrast between the unorthodox brawling style of Hope and real world-class boxers. Granted, we’re a long way away from the arcade-game boxing of the early Rocky movies, though in terms of authenticity, Southpaw‘s fight scenes are still a notch or two below Ali and The Fighter (which have the advantage of real footage to emulate) and probably fall on the same level as Rocky Balboa. Watch them on YouTube and see if you agree. In fact, the most naturalistic boxing scenes in the entire film were from a short sparring session featuring real professional fighter Victor Ortiz.
The biggest problem with the movie is the lazy script. I mean, come on, naming the central character “Hope” so you can toss in a bunch of puns isn’t exactly subtle. Apart from the boxing issues I noted above, there are a lot of little nagging things. If you break down the major themes and plot points in the story — I’m not going to spell them out — you’ll see that they’ve pretty much all been recycled from the Rocky franchise. There are also unresolved issues that shouldn’t be unresolved, like a major incident early in the film (given away in the trailers) that is kind of forgotten until it is disposed of at the end with a throwaway line. And the fact that it was unresolved in the first place lacks logic and common sense.
Some of the errors are littered throughout the dialogue and can be glaring. I’m going to break a rule here and divulge a couple of mini-spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Otherwise, highlight the white text below to read me rant.
At the start of the film, a reporter asks Hope whether there is anyone left for him to fight. Seconds later, Hope’s arch nemesis, a top up-and-coming fighter he has never faced, appears and challenges him to a bout. Why would the reporter ask such a stupid question when the answer is so obviously standing right there? The commentary written for the HBO commentators also has these problems, such as moronically declaring that a previously undefeated fighter’s career is over after one loss.
I feel bad for Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s obvious he put a lot of work and effort into this role. But surely a guy who has been in so many fantastic movies can tell Southpaw isn’t very good. It would have been interesting had Eminem gotten the role instead, but clearly Gyllenhaal is the better actor and stronger screen presence. Oh well, at least he got really ripped and learned how to box. And Eminem still got to a write a song for the movie.
As for the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker does his usual shtick as an old trainer with serious skills and a heart of gold. It’s the type of role the Oscar-winner can sleepwalk through, and probably did. I like the guy who plays Hope’s nemesis, Miguel Gomez, who might not be a great actor but at least looks like a boxer. The problem for me is that he keeps reminding me of his character in TV’s campy zombie show The Strain. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get to do much, and the young girl who plays their daughter, Oona Laurence, doesn’t particularly stand out, though I blame some of that on the dialogue given to her. No such excuse for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who plays Hope’s manager. He’s flat-out horrible.
A lot of my harshness in this review stems from expectations and my fondness for the sport. Casual viewers who don’t think as much about the intricacies and are simply looking for an uplifting sports movie might find it a lot more enjoyable than I did. I wish I felt differently about the movie because I can see what they were trying to do with it — an underdog story of redemption that’s character-focused and fuelled by a moving father-daughter relationship — but ultimately the script and execution is so heavy-handed that I couldn’t see past all the flaws.
If I have to end this review with a boxing analogy I would say this: They say the most devastating knockout punches in boxing are the ones you don’t see coming. Southpaw may hit very hard, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be because you can see all the punches coming from a mile away.
2 stars out of 5