If you pick several moments from “Raging Bull”, “Rocky”, “The Champ”, and “The Fighter” and throw them in a blender, voila, you’ve made “Southpaw.” This clichéd rags to riches back to rags then back again to riches story is as emotionally manipulative that a movie can be.
“Southpaw” features one of the biggest tricks that an actor can pull. Jake Gyllenhaal’s body transformation via daily GNC shopping trips is impressive, but the performance that comes out of his veiny, muscle bound body is anything but.
Gyllenhaal is Billy Hope, the World Light Heavyweight champion and possessor of one of the least subtle character names of all time. He lives on an estate outside New York with his wife, Maureen (horribly miscast Rachel McAdams), and ten year old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), surrounded by expensive cars and handing out Cartier watches as gifts to his training team.
All of the marketing for “Southpaw” gives away the tragedy that hits the Hope family, which makes the emotional upper-cut less impactful. This leads Billy down a path of booze, the loss of his boxing license, and horrendous financial decisions, all with his stereotypically shady manager, Jordan (50 Cent), egging him on.
Once Billy hits rock bottom, the state places Leila in child protective services custody and Billy begins the “redemption” phase of “Southpaw.” Billy is monitored by Angela (a wasted Naomie Harris), who supervises his visits with Leila while making sure he’s employed and sober.
Billy’s employment involves cleaning up a ratty, beaten down boxing gym owned by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). Since he is persona non grata with every single trainer in the boxing world, Billy begs Tick to train him. The thing is that Tick has a set of rules that in addition to not training pro boxers includes no swearing or drinking in his gym.
Of course, that doesn’t stop Tick from hammering down doubles at the local dive bar. Maybe the whiskey is why Tick agrees to train Billy because when he does, there is literally no reason given. Tick just…does it.
Thus begins the training montage that would have been much, much better if set to John Cafferty’s “Hearts On Fire” from “Rocky IV.” Since Billy fights like an angry, rabid animal, Tick unleashes Billy’s inner zen and teaches him to (gasp the horror) use defense when fighting.
“Southpaw” then enters the revenge phase as Billy gets a comeback championship fight with Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez). There is no reason for him to be given this opportunity other than the movie needs it for redemption plot device purposes.
Crowds will cheer, applaud, and weep as Gyllenhaal fights his way back to the top. Oddly enough, crowds may not understand a word that he says as Gyllenhaal has made the conscious choice to play Billy Hope as if he constantly has marbles in his mouth.
To make matters worse, screenwriter Kurt Sutter has given Billy exactly zero redeeming qualities. Just when something happens that elicits sympathy for Billy, he does something so mind-numbingly dumb and foolish that it erases it.
The only good thing that both Sutter and Gyllenhaal display is how much Billy loves his wife and daughter. Those are great things, but the second they disappear from his life, he falls apart. Perhaps Billy needs them around for selfish reasons as opposed to love? Either way, it’s tough to tell if we are supposed to like Billy or not.
Forest Whitaker could have taken the role of Tick and really gone over the top with it. Thankfully, he is grounded, quiet, and calm. It makes his few outbursts that much more emotional, even though there’s no reason for he and Billy to bond. Whitaker usually makes lemonade from lemons and that’s definitely the case in “Southpaw.”
There is little doubt that the guilty party here is director Antoine Fuqua. The boxing scenes are fantastic and intense, if not unrealistic as it seems that every punch thrown lands directly on a face. Nobody swings and misses in Fuqua’s boxing world.
Fuqua applies this to every single moment of “Southpaw.” There is no subtlety or craft used, just a message of “you will care about this because look how sad it is” over and over. Fuqua does not have the skills to create natural sympathy for his actors and he goes for the sappy, easy way out for over two hours.
There is no doubt that “Southpaw” will fool many people into thinking they’ve seen something emotionally resonating when they could have simply stayed home, opened up Netflix, and clicked play on the dozens of boxing movies that this one has ripped off. I