“Southpaw” has a lot of heart like many good boxers, but it belongs in the amateur division not the big leagues. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favourite actors and I’m a big fan of Rachel McAdams, but the latter doesn’t have enough time on screen to elevate proceedings (although she’s great while she’s around) and the most impressive thing about the former in this movie is his physique. “Southpaw” is a paint-by-numbers boxing film that professes to be phenomenal, but in reality it offers very little in the way of entertainment.
The plot centres around Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) who begins the film as Light Heavyweight Champion of the world, but loses everything and has to rebuild both his career and his personal life. The story is essentially about redemption, and this theme does evoke quite a bit of emotion, particularly as Hope begins to self-destruct following the death of his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). However, the boxing rivalry between Hope and Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who was indirectly involved in Maureen’s death, feels shoehorned in and slightly disconnected from the actual meat of the movie. Overall I’d say that the story is okay, but it suffers because it refuses to delve into its characters and at times it feels formulaic and clichéd.
Within the story there are many interesting characters and story threads that get thrown by the wayside to facilitate Hope’s tale of recovery, which is particularly frustrating because the conclusion to Hope’s story is so obvious. I would’ve preferred to delve deeper into Tick’s (Forest Whitaker) alcoholism and the cause of his anger than have my mind numbed by scenes like the training montage that came towards the end of the movie, because I felt that the character had a worldly wisdom that was very endearing and I would’ve liked to find out more about the events that shaped his personality. To me this film felt like it had more to offer, more ideas it wanted to explore, but decided against using these ideas to keep the focus on Hope in an effort to force emotional investment – this is a shame because at the end of the day Hope’s story was average at best.
Another major issue I had with “Southpaw” was that it didn’t seem to understand the sport it was covering. In the first fight Hope knocked out his opponent by catching him off-guard with a vicious running punch, but he was able to do this because his opponent was complaining to the referee. I found this really frustrating, because although it gave the audience a feel for the nature of the character, it wouldn’t have been greeted as a wonderful turnaround by the fans and the commentators – Hope would’ve been seen as unsporting and he’d probably have lost a lot of public support.
In the second fight Hope was on a path to self-destruction, allowing his opponent to hit him with multiple punches without offering any meaningful response. This had been going on for several rounds, which is absolutely ridiculous because the referee would’ve stopped the fight long before Hope’s corner threw in the towel. Hope wasn’t defending himself so any respectable referee would end the fight for the good of his health.
Finally, with regard to the boxing element of the movie, Hope would’ve never gotten to the top of his sport without being able to block a punch! At the top level boxing is about good head movement, picking the right punches, and meticulous planning before a fight, not about bare-knuckle brawling. Hope would’ve faced people far more intelligent than himself and he would’ve been picked off, it’s as simple as that.
As far as the performances in “Southpaw” are concerned I don’t have too many complaints. Jake Gyllenhaal has completely altered his physique since he starred in “Nightcrawler”, which in itself is impressive, and the way he carried himself as an arrogant and vicious World Champion was very believable. He managed to portray the damaged aspect of his character perfectly, which was key to making the movie watchable, because without that element Hope would’ve been a loathsome celebrity and a bad father. Gyllenhaal doesn’t do anything wrong in this film, which isn’t surprising because he’s an exceptional actor.
Rachel McAdams is fantastic for the short time she’s on screen, and it was admirable that she was likeable enough to make her death feel like a genuine tragedy. Forest Whitaker is also good, but his character is extremely underdeveloped. That was a problem for all the supporting characters; they were there simply to propel Hope’s story forward and didn’t feel fully formed.
The worst offender here is Escobar who plays the villain but never feels particularly evil. He did and said bad things but these actions didn’t fit with the character that was established at the start of the film, meaning that they felt manipulative because they were only included so that the audience would hate him and route for Hope. When Escobar was antagonising Hope at the start of the film he was just trying to make a fight, he was trying to force an opportunity that would change his life and improve his career – Hope’s wife’s death wasn’t his fault and he seemed genuinely distressed by the event.
All in all, I felt that “Southpaw” was extremely flawed despite its compelling main character and tragic story. On top of the issues I’ve already mentioned, music was inappropriately deployed at unnecessary times, dialogue was uninspired and at times painful, and certain moments were poorly executed – for example, Maureen died of blood loss after being shot but when the camera zoomed out there wasn’t even a lot of blood!
“Southpaw” was an okay film, but I was distracted by flaws that could’ve been easily avoided. Neither Hope’s relationship with his daughter, nor his boxing career, felt fixed by the end of the film, and becoming a champion again didn’t feel like it would completely resolve his problems. Hope never earned his redemption, he was still an angry and aggressive man with no idea how to raise his daughter or live without his wife by the time credits rolled, so the whole film felt effectively pointless. I didn’t hate “Southpaw”, but it’s far from perfect and certainly isn’t a knockout.