‘Southpaw’ isn't quite a knockout

Jul 22, 2015 at 1:00 am

Southpaw | B-

Rated R, 123 minutes

It may be unfair, but it's inevitable that the modern boxing movie will ultimately be compared to John Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone's scrappy but brilliant Rocky. The genius of their 1976 Best Picture Oscar winner was its indie commitment to character-based storytelling and an ending that allowed its titular hero to actually lose the fight of his life ... while still achieving personal triumph. It was a genre-bending choice that few films have since dared to make – including Stallone's numerous sequels.

This puts director Antoine Fuqua's blood- and sweat-soaked boxing melodrama Southpaw in a difficult position: Allow its pugilistic protagonist Billy "the Great" Hope to win the climactic fight and he delivers yet another predictable tale of simple-minded victory. Doom Billy to lose and he stands accused of cribbing from Stallone, something Southpaw can't help from already doing. I won't reveal the film's ultimate choice, but given screenwriter Kurt Sutter's dramatically schematic plotting, the finale shouldn't surprise anyone.

Southpaw opens with Billy (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) going 10 rounds to defend his Lightweight World Championship belt. It's a bruising and bloody victory that cements his 43-0 record but worries his adoring wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams). She fears her husband's reckless, body-battering style will leave him with long-lasting brain injuries. It's a valid concern given Billy's impulsive, hot-tempered personality. The two grew up together in Hell's Kitchen's foster system, and she's always been the loving brains to his mumbling brawn. Luckily, beneath all the sinewed muscle, Billy's a soft-hearted brute who actually listens to his whip-smart wife.

Unfortunately, Billy's happy life is destined to unravel. When a confrontation with trash-talking fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) turns into an altercation, shots are fired and Maureen is killed. Reeling from the loss, Billy enters a Job-like spiral into despair and anger, losing his title, his fortune, his manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) and, worst of all, custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila, who is remanded to Family Services.

This, of course, sets the stage for the kind of redemptive comeback story Hollywood thrives on. Billy recruits grizzled old trainer Tick Willis (the always good Forest Whitaker) to give him the discipline and confidence to make it back into the ring ... and overcome his bull-headed instincts in order to win back custody of Leila.

Despite the rise-then-fall-then-rise again storyline, Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) continues his cinematic preoccupation with masculine violence and aggression, stoking both Billy and the audience's desire for retribution against the cartoonishly villainous Escobar. (Charitably, we won't dwell on the racial implications of Billy's white righteousness and Miguel's dark-skinned thuggery.) What's different about Southpaw is Fuqua's newfound but shameless embrace of emotional sentimentality. Relentlessly glum, he doesn't so much chart Billy's fall from grace as seems determined to grind his protagonist's spirit into dust, pummeling us with a desire for empathy. And while his third act thankfully resists the urge to turn Southpaw into a blatant revenge flick, it doesn't offer up much in the way of surprises.

That said, Fuqua (a boxer himself) shoots his fight scenes with an inventive energy, using a wide variety of shots and angles — from opponent POVs to ringside cellphone screens — to urgently and effectively capture the kinetic brutality of his brawling subjects. Working with cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua, he fashions a propulsive, pulse-pounding spectacle. It's first-rate filmmaking in service of subtlety-free, second-rate storytelling.

And then, of course, there's Gyllenhaal, who is barely recognizable here. Looking rougher and harder than ever, the actor once again disappears into an emotionally closed-off, hard-to-know character. But unlike Nightcrawler's loquacious sociopath Lou Bloom, Billy Hope is a hard-bodied, inarticulate lug. Still, Gyllenhaal unearths both vulnerability and scrappy charisma in the man, delivering a performance that strenuously seeks to balance physical ferocity with authentic sincerity. It's a deft juggling act that succeeds where the film's writing and direction falls short. You never for a moment doubt where Southpaw is heading, but, ultimately, it's Gyllenhaal that makes you care.