Boxing movies use a well-honed formula. I suppose we can credit Raging Bull for establishing much of that, but a great deal should also go to Rocky. Nearly every other film about pugilism (even the more recent run of MMA-themed releases) worked that blueprint to the bone.
Here Southpaw deserves some credit. It’s not a blueprint boxing film. It does try to avoid the clichés. Unfortunately while doing that it fails to accomplish much at all.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who does a great job, is a boxer at the top of his game. Then a tragedy strips him of pretty much everything. In an attempt to regain himself, he goes to the down-and-out gym of Forest Whitaker, the man who trained the only fighter to beat Jake. It all culminates to the inevitable final championship fight.
Southpaw starts strong, but the first act quickly settles in a slow burn. That is fine, as it helps establish the main character’s downward spiral. Just as that starts dragging, he finally reaches Whitaker. Things start looking up… then stall again.
The second act is a hodgepodge of emotional cues, mostly irrelevant character development and moments to engineer the audience into caring. Then, almost out of the blue, a new fight opportunity arrives. A quick montage later and we’re at the final bout – which lacks the punch of the opening bout, if you pardon the pun.
If that all seems expedient, it’s not. Things drag. Fortunately it’s not all Jake’s moping, but the film really doesn’t give much to care about. A chunk of the drama is around his child, but it’s dealt with shallowly and again only rescued because of good acting. Regardless, you know the main character will come out on top, whether he wins the final fight or not. The Wrestler this is not. Though the story sets up possible villains in the rival boxer or Curtis Jackson’s rather enjoyable manager, that never goes anywhere. Only at the end does Southpaw capitalise on some of it, but it’s too late. You kinda forgot that those characters are actually antagonists and not simply pawns in a drawn-out story.
While watching this I kept thinking of The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua’s previous movie. That had similar problems: lopsided delivery punctuated by on-the-nose dramatic moments to jolt you into life. It was all practically carried by Denzel Washington. Southpaw is carried by Gyllenhaal and Whitaker.
But neither escape the fact that Fuqua is an average director who has yet to distinguish himself in style and execution. While he strove to avoid a cliché boxing movie, Fuqua still delves into other cinematic paint-by-numbers tricks. The music swoops and swoons in predictable fashion. Certain characters, like Jake’s daughter, are used where necessary. The tragedy that befalls a minor character gives a chance for Whitaker to be emotional and back the character out of a pointless conflict of interest. It’s all pretty drab and engineered.
By avoiding the boxing blueprint, Southpaw makes its biggest mistake. The final fight in particular is anti-climactic and not shot in an engaging fashion. Here I thought of the most recent Rocky: a film that should have failed, but was instead excellent. Sylvester Stallone used every cliché to full force and made a masterpiece. Fuqua went the other direction and ended up with a film that doesn’t invest enough in any particular area. It has a bit of everything: the underdog, the tragedy, the humility, the montage… but not enough of anything.
I really want to like Southpaw, but I’m not sure I’d have been happy if I paid to see it. At least The Equalizer skirted its flaws by having a pretty level-headed story. Southpaw tries to do much more and as a result accomplishes far less.
Last Updated: September 3, 2015