Southpaw is a movie I was very excited to see, more so for Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance rather than the movie itself. From the trailer, it looked like a very sentimentalized boxing movie, which is not something I immediately object to, but I was a bit wary. It turns out those reservations weren’t unfounded, but I enjoyed the movie even while recognizing the drawbacks (most of which lie with the script).
Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavy weight boxing champion of the world, when his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is shot and killed in an altercation with a rival boxer and his entourage. When Billy looses his wife, he looses everything. Drowning in self pity and near suicidal, the state takes custody of his 12 year old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), his promoter (50 Cent) drops him, he falls into debt and his house is foreclosed on. He gets back into boxing with the help of small time boxing trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), to earn a living and prove to the court that he is responsible enough to take care of his daughter.
The frustrating thing about Southpaw is that you can see the foundations of a much better movie lurking behind all the obvious sentimentality and boxing movie tropes. Most people I have talked to and most reviews I have read seem to agree that the beginning belongs to a much better movie. The dynamic between Billy and his wife, the examination of what drives Billy to fight and how he goes about doing it, are compelling and interesting even if they might not be super revolutionary in the genre. There’s an element of self-harm inherent in any boxing movie, and Southpaw sort of puts it up front, especially when its combined with the death of Maureen. But for whatever reason, the film gets bogged down in a very traditional boxing narrative and stops investigating Billy Hope’s psyche. And the films suffers for it.
What are left with is a somewhat sappy and very standard boxing film, which I don’t have a huge problem with because I like boxing movies. However, the film still falls short because of how sentimental it is. It overplays its hand emotionally, offering some cringe inducing moments, most of them involving the character flat out stating their emotions. Simply cutting out these lines would have helped the picture tremendously. We really don’t need Leila to say (something along the lines of) “I wish you had died instead of Mom!!!” We really, really don’t. The good news is that if you just sort of bear with these terrible lines/scenes, the film goes along a familiar but effective boxing/sports movie trajectory that is easy to get behind.
I have mixed feelings on how the film is shot (by DP Mauro Fiore, who’s most impressive credit is probably James Cameron’s Avatar). I loved the callbacks to Raging Bull, one of my favorite films of all time. It makes sense, not just because they are both boxing movies, but because Southpaw does have the element of self destruction that Raging Bull, granted, explores a million times better. I think I picked out at least two shots from the ring that were directly copied from Raging Bull. Southpaw does a good job pulling back from the fights to establish geography, and slow motion wasn’t overused thankfully. However, the editing did get a bit quick during the fights and it never got completely incomprehensible, but came damn close a couple of times. The rest of the movie is pretty standard for the most part, though to go back to the boxing scenes there’s one shot of Gyllenhaal screaming at the camera that recalls the actor’s previous film, the fantastic Nightcrawler.
And it all comes back to Gyllenhaal, who as per usual, turns in wonderful performance. I was very disappointed that he wasn’t Oscar nominated for Nightcrawler last year, and was hoping he’d get one this year since the fanatical campaigner Harvey Weinstein seems to be behind it. Critics aren’t really taking to the film which has me worried, but I’m still rooting for him obviously. Gyllenhaal, kind of like Tom Hardy, has a great ability to sort of play leading man roles as a character actor might. They both develop such individual, chameleon-like performances, but still have the weight and gravitas to anchor a film. I can almost go through every performance of Gyllenhaal’s I’ve seen (recent ones anyway; not so much when he was a child actor) and point out some specific ticks of each. I think he’s actually been better in other films, but he still embodies a completely different character here from anything I’ve seen from him before (though is mired down by the script a bit).
So Southpaw may ultimately be disappointing, but I ended up enjoying myself reasonably well while watching it. I really really wish that the film had thrown the come from behind boxing narrative into the background and brought the character study more to the foreground, but even so, the film ends up being an entertaining enough film to catch on cable on a slow afternoon or something. I’m not sure about Gyllenhaal’s Oscar chances, but we’ll see. In short, Southpaw could have been a lot better, but it also could have been a lot worse, and I had fun with it anyway.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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