If you know anything at all about the movie going into Southpaw, you know precisely what you’re going to see. This is a paint-by-numbers redemptive sports saga from the opening scene, and though star Jake Gyllenhaal gives yet another fantastic performance as boxer Billy Hope (yes, the protagonist’s name is Billy Hope in case you were expecting any subtlety at all), a pugilist bruised both physically and emotionally, he can’t elevate the rote story.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) is never going to light the world on fire with his stylistic flourishes, but his workmanlike aesthetic is solid if the material is present. Unfortunately, the Southpaw script from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter isn’t there. Billy is the world champ, he climbed to great heights from humble beginnings in an orphanage, has a loving wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a precocious daughter (Oona Laurence), and all the money and bros he needs. This, of course, evaporates in short order, leaving Billy with nothing but a dead wife, a daughter in the custody of the state, and nowhere to go but up. Fortunately, he finds a wise old black man, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), his Mr. Miyagi, to show him what’s really important and light the path to redemption.
The story is more about pummeling Billy, both bodily and emotionally, than it is about anything else going on in the movie. Gyllenhaal shuffles around, partially punch drunk, showing the physical toll of all the rounds in the ring with an impressive physicality, but in case you missed the point, you spend a fair amount of time watching him absorb punishment.
Clocking in north of two hours, Southpaw meanders around and takes far too long to get anywhere. Every stage overstays its welcome. There’s one too many scenes with Billy and Maureen, one too many visits to see his daughter in the orphanage, and a superfluous thread about a kid Billy meets at his new, no frills, no nonsense gym that never goes anywhere and is emotional blackmail. You get no subtext—at one point a ring announcer literally tells you what the subtext is supposed to be—or anything beyond what you see, and as a result you skip along the surface waiting and hoping to dive deeper.
There are some sweet training montages, but by the time he’s amassed a 43-0 record, you have to figure Billy already knows how to box. But when Tick finally agrees to train Billy—he, of course, doesn’t want to right away—he puts him through a series of basic drills that you’re fairly certain Billy has done countless times. This is supposed to a stripping-him-down-to-the-basics kind of approach that cements the bond between the two men, but, like the rest of the movie, that never develops beyond a superficial level.
And the title is something of a red herring. Every punch Billy throws in Southpaw comes from an orthodox, right-handed stance. The term “southpaw,” as it actually appears in the movie, is, continuing the Karate Kid analogy from earlier, essentially the crane kick, shoehorned in, distracting, and unnecessary.
If you can put aside hope for anything original or insightful, it’s possible to luxuriate in the visceral thrill of Southpaw for a time. However, even that starts to wear thin as you ascend toward the bland, predictable climactic fight between Billy and his rival, and the family melodrama—the plot bears some resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s arm wrestling-cum-child-custody-battle Over the Top—cranks up, though that element dissipates surprisingly quickly.
There isn’t anything particularly egregious about Southpaw, but at the same time there isn’t much to recommend it either. Gyllenhall’s raw performance is the highlight, but even the actor, who underwent another profound physical transformation for the role, can only do so much. McAdams disappears from the picture before she can contribute much substance. Whitaker goes through the motions of the troubled mentor, while Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson plays a sleazy promoter, which means nothing more than he dresses fancy and says things like, “It’s just business.” One is the obvious devil on Billy’s shoulder while the other is the angel, and just in case you don’t grasp that right away, Tink carries around a Bible from time to time. He doesn’t preach or reference it, but it’s there and he occasionally gestures with the Good Book for emphasis.
Southpaw is as blunt as a stiff jab to the face. Predictable from the get go, it starts off in one direction and never deviates from that path, for a long, long time. It pounds you physically, but leaves the internal and emotional untouched and unscathed. [Grade: C+]