It’s pretty obvious why America loves boxing movies despite the fact that boxing itself is dwindling in popularity. Ever since Rocky the genre has proven that it can easily deliver the best of what we want out of our sports movies. There’s the training montage, the climatic final fight and, for the most part, the tale of an underdog.
The latest entry into the world of boxing movies is Southpaw, a film that is clearly about boxing and clearly made out of the parts of a boxing movie. Those two things are facts and they can’t be denied. It doesn’t mean that a good boxing movie was made.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Release Date: July 24, 2015
If you’ve seen any boxing movie you’ve seen Southpaw. This one picks up in the “boxing movie career timeline” around where Rocky V does, but instead of Rocky we’ve got Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he defends his title once again. However, truly great boxers can’t be rich, they have to work from the ground up and so after a tragedy Billy loses all his money, custody of his daughter, and his manager (50 Cent). That means he’s got to return to his roots and get a new trainer in the form of Tick Will (Forest Whitaker), who runs a boxing center in Hell’s Kitchen for poor youths. You literally can find every single aspect of this film in a film that has come before it. There is not an original concept going for it in terms of story.
There’s even less going for it in terms of pacing. The screenplay is horrendously light on tension building and this means that by the time the final fight has rolled in you don’t feel like you should be there. The conflict between Gyllenhaal and his opponent is so lightly touched on and poorly handled that the guy just becomes a punching bag. Even the sports training montages feel like they’re rushed and disconnected. At no point does the movie build successfully in emotion, leaving its talented actors and director with little to grab the viewer with.
They all try, though. The cast is obviously fantastic and without them the film would be utterly boring. We’ve seen it all before and we’ve seen it done better so it’s a good thing the actors turn redundancy into something slightly original. Gyllenhaal, who must have had a sculptor chisel his abs for the film, seems to think he’s in a quality movie. His tortured and enraged performance brings back echoes of Stallone’s perfectly countenanced delivery in the original Rocky. Whitaker also layers in nuances to a character so cookie cutter you wonder how much the spent at William and Sonoma on him. Tick Will’s motivations and character are so awkwardly crammed in that he’s barely there yet Whitaker makes his presence known.
Director Antoine Fuqua does as well. While the story may be slapdash and contrived his direction is anything but. Boxing matches are notoriously hard to direct, but Fuqua does a fantastic job of putting his together. His direction is visceral during the matches, sometimes even cutting into first-person — a risk that pays off thanks to his skill. This move uses its R-rating hard during the matches as they’re bloody and powerful. It just can’t sustain that feeling throughout, getting bogged down in melodrama too often and forgetting we all came to see a boxer train.
Another sticking point for me was the almost forced use of Eminem’s music in the film. He was a producer on the movie, and has a single for the film called “Phenomenal.” It plays over a training montage, but just feels awkward. It’s angry and loud and out of place. That’s really a problem for a lot of the film. There’s a lot of sound and fury, but in the end it signifies nothing (to steal from the Bard). You know you’ve watched some great things, but they sure didn’t make a great movie.
Southpaw is a boxing movie made out of other boxing movies and is only buoyed by the fact that its director and actors thought they were in something more. There’s not much of an original thought in here, but that doesn’t always matter for a sports movie. What does matter is that you get that little thrill in your heart as our underdog hero climbs up from whatever depths he’s been flung into. Southpaw doesn’t give you that thrill and because of that it can throw a few good punches, but it never lands a KO.