There is a problem with boxing movies that simply can't ever be solved. You see, Hollywood has been churning out boxing movies for years. Some are great (Rocky, Raging Bull), some take you by surprise (The Fighter) and some really, really suck (Grudge Match). But the problem is that Rocky was the ultimate boxing movie in 1976. The underdog story has never been told better than that and I sincerely doubt that any boxing film will ever top that. And Raging Bull already did the whole "tortured, violent man in and outside the ring" story very, very well in 1980. Both films are undisputed classics that will never be topped and that's why Southpaw already starts out in a very tricky situation. Because there's simply nothing fresh here. Besides a bizarre murder twist that the trailers spoiled completely, Southpaw is standard rise, fall and rise again boxing territory. But that doesn't mean the film isn't a modest success. Southpaw thrives off of its filmmaking vitality and the intensely focused performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. It's not a boxing classic by any means- this is a formulaic, straight-forward mid-summer diversion.
For those who haven't seen the trailers for this film, I might try avoiding this synopsis. Because they pretty much spoil the entire movie. Not that you couldn't have seen the whole story coming from a mile away, but it was still frustrating to watch Southpaw and know virtually everything that was about to happen. Essentially, the story is that Billy "The Great" Hope (Gyllenhaal) is one of the greatest fighters in the world, the undisputed champion known best for his violent, fearless style. Despite the beatdowns that he takes in the ring, his personal life is great- he has a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and a young daughter (Oona Laurence) who he very much loves. However, that all comes crashing down when Maureen is shot in a freak altercation between Hope's entourage and the cronies that surround a rival fighter (Miguel Gomez).
So not only does Maureen pass away, Billy also winds up in financial trouble due to......well, the movie never really explains that. It's possible that his manager (played by 50 Cent, ironically bankrupt in real life) was stealing from him but that's never confirmed in the film. Hope begins to display erratic behavior, gets suspended from boxing and ends up having to give up his daughter to Child Protection Services. Billy's at rock bottom and to stage his inevitable comeback during his darkest hours, he calls on Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a local trainer. After that, it's time to bring on the training montage, running scenes, Eminem music and big title fight.
First off, I think I should note that the projection in my theater was absolutely atrocious. I honestly don't know why I didn't ask an employee to fix it, because it was simply awful. Pretty much only the dead center of the screen was clear- the rest was a blur caused by a framing mess-up, if I'm assuming correctly. However, that didn't stop me from both enjoying and despising this movie. Even if you're one of the film's detractors, you have to give it credit for putting together an intense and gritty experience on screen. This isn't the toothless, cartoony hitmen-and-prostitutes tale that The Equalizer was- this is a vicious drama more akin to Training Day than anything else in Fuqua's catalog. But still, there are numerous issues to be had with this film and you really don't have to look too hard to find them.
Logic and plot holes are the biggest areas that Southpaw struggles with. On the drive home from my screening, I talked with my dad (who really didn't like this flick) about the movie quite a bit and some questions started to pop up that I realized could not quite be answered. Just a few examples I'm gonna rattle off real fast. Where did all of Billy's money go? Did 50 Cent steal it? Is Billy just really dumb? Why does he go to Tick Wills? Out of all of the trainers, was Tick really the best? Did he have some sort of past that we didn't understand? Why did the filmmakers feel the need to copy one of the most iconic scenes from Raging Bull? Why is Rita Ora in this movie? Why does Billy's daughter only care about him when he's fighting? Why does Escobar (the rival fighter) hate Billy so much? Or does Billy just not realize that it's trash talk? What is life?
Basically, my point is that there are quite a few logic holes that just don't make much sense at all. But I feel like Fuqua is such a dynamic filmmaker that some of the holes are forgivable. The fight scenes are brutal and visceral- completely unrealistic of course, but well shot. In addition to that, Gyllenhaal's performance is outstanding. He seems to be channeling a mix of Tom Hardy and Eminem (the part was originally written for him) and it makes for a performance that is a sharp contrast from the work he did last year in Nightcrawler. The supporting cast is decent as well, with McAdams and Whitaker each getting their moments to shine.
Can we all just take a moment to recognize that Jake Gyllenhaal is literally one of the best actors on the planet, if not the best? The man has been brilliance on brilliance since Prince of Persia disappointed, turning in great performances in Source Code and End of Watch, as well as masterclass turns in Nightcrawler and Prisoners. He has been stellar for several films straight now, and Southpaw is no different. Bulked up, bloodied and beaten down, his Hope is a strong piece of method acting, even if the character isn't that compelling.
But ultimately, Southpaw's downfall is that it's rather tedious and predictable. Instead of being energized by Billy's rise from the doldrums of life, I just felt indifferent. I liked the final fight and wanted Billy to win, but not because I really liked his character- I just thought that Escobar was a fool who needed his face beaten into a bloody pulp. I think that the predictability of the film made it a little bland after a while, and despite the sure-handed direction of Fuqua, he can't really save how predictable this film is. That doesn't mean that Southpaw isn't well-executed. It just isn't that innovative or interesting.
You can enjoy Southpaw pretty easily for what it is- a formulaic, simple sports drama. Despite the occasionally hard subject matter and excessive swearing, Southpaw goes down pretty smoothly, if a bit slowly. Gyllenhaal is brilliant, but in the end, the script is littered with poor character development, logic holes and a cookie-cutter story that doesn't really reach for something greater. Southpaw could have been better, but I feel like most people will be satisfied with this simple flick.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6.4/10)