An overwrought and awkward tribulation that jabs away with every boxing movie cliché in existence, Southpaw is directed by Antoine Fuqua and features a musty Kurt Sutter screenplay that was originally designed to propel an Eminem vehicle. This 2015 film features Jake Gyllenhaal as the star, with Slim Shady’s pal 50 Cent playing a supporting role.
Fuqua is an interesting director at times, with Training Day and The Equalizer providing some great work with Denzel Washington. But he’s also had his fair share of upsets, with Southpaw perhaps the worst of the bunch. And that’s probably counting Bait, by the way. There’s something altogether horrible about the fender-bender of trope and ambition in this picture that renders it intolerable.
Gyllenhaal stars as boxer Billy Hope. Yes, that’s his name. Hope is the World Light Heavyweight champ and he’s got it all going on, with a hot wife named Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and a daughter named Leila (Oona Laurence). Maureen wants Billy to stop boxing because he gets beat up and stuff, but she’s also been reaping the benefits of his punchy prowess. Also, 50 Cent is his manager.
One day, something bad and unintentionally hilarious happens at a charity event for an orphanage or something. This sends the protagonist on a downward spiral of drinking and being sad. He loses custody of his daughter and has to mount a big comeback, which includes the hiring of Tick (Forest Whitaker) as his new manager.
Everything about Southpaw amounts to some kind of boxing cliché. It paints the serene picture of a perfect life at the outset, with the boxer on his way out of his career at his wife’s behest and the adorable daughter wearing glasses and whatnot. They have their cute verbal games, live in a mansion, have a bunch of hip but potentially criminal friends. It’s all good.
Naturally, the event that befalls the protagonist should lead to a downward spiral of sorts. But Southpaw treats this as a whacked-out paradigm, with Billy first calling up the apparitions of his ballyhooed “past” to hunt down the shooter and do him in like they do in the streets and shit. This requires the appearance of Rita Ora as a drug addict wife.
As one might expect, Billy Hope has to reach rock bottom before he can start the obligatory redemptive trail. This means that he has to have the falling-out with his daughter, which ventures through a lot of tedious lines and a little light slapping. Naomie Harris has the unappreciated job of being the Child Protective Services officer in charge with overseeing the whole operation.
Everyone in the cast plays things to the upper echelon of the histrionic scale – and then some. Laurence is bizarre as the requisite kid, floating from emotion to emotion because it says so on the page. There’s nothing natural about her character, nothing believable in the way she watches her daddy’s big fight and goes from covering her eyes to crying to jumping up and down to whining.
Gyllenhaal doesn’t fare better. His character mumbles and wanders through Southpaw and his physical transformation is impressive because he’s all ripped and stuff. But in terms of providing a compelling character in which to believe, he has little to work with. While he’s elevated himself past shoddy material before, Sutter’s recurring words are shrill, stupid body shots and Big Jake can’t do it.
The boxing scenes are insipid and corny, with the typical beatdown-to-comeback structure taking hold via a slurry of finicky close-ups and televised camera angles. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore catches the blaze of a fat pro fight rather well, but shooting through other screens and smartphone displays is a little on the silly side.
Southpaw pummels through a round of cants, lumbers through a mountain of ham and lands with a dull thud. Fuqua’s film has no mind or spirit. It fails to latch the audience to Billy Hope and fails to generate real heat during the boxing scenes. Besides drinking each time a character repeats and repeats and repeats a line for melodramatic effect, there’s not a lot worth clinching to in this one.