I suppose it was inevitable Antoine Fuqua would direct a boxing picture. The one thing that connects his diverse (and uneven) filmography – from fine genre fare like Training Day and King Arthur to lesser junk like Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer – is intense, gory, bruising violence. So when an early shot in Southpaw has Jake Gyllenhaal looking straight into the camera, howling in slow motion as blood and sweat rain off his straining muscles, it’s clear we’re in a place of macho intensity. Fuqua shoots the boxing matches with reasonable force, and wisely uses the camera to teach the audience how to read the strategies involved. But the story between the bouts is merely programmatic, a broad and bludgeoning collection of tropes. It’s a boxing picture. What do you want, a roadmap?
It starts with Gyllenhaal’s boxer at the top of his game – undefeated, even. Soon, he’s fallen on hard times due to a set of tragic circumstances and his own bad habits – temper, alcohol, and so on. He loses his wife (Rachel McAdams), is abandoned by his sleazy manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and has his daughter (Oona Laurence) taken away. Now he has to rely on a tough-but-fair wise old trainer (Forest Whitaker) to help him get back in fighting shape. If you already think this all ends with a big comeback fight against a perfectly loathsome rival (Miguel Gomez), you’ve definitively seen a boxing picture before. Besides, Gyllenhaal’s surname here is Hope. You’ve got to know where the symbolism is pointing. Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter’s screenplay plays every note you’d expect, doing so with a swaggering clobbering melodrama, confident in its ability to use an audience’s emotions as its speed bag. It thumps away.
Fuqua obliges the formulaic intentions of the material while keeping the visual interest on the performer’s bodies. He focuses attention on McAdams’ relaxed sensuality, Jackson’s broad-shouldered business posture, and Gomez’s slippery fighting stance. But most of all Fuqua takes in Gyllenhaal’s ripped musculature, a painful display of tense tautness. He clearly worked hard for this role, and is eager to show off every bit of the gain from the pain. But it also serves a purpose in telling us everything we need to know about this boxer. He likes the pain. Thanks to the announcers helpfully shouting out the subtext during the fights, we learn boxing fans know it’s not a Hope match until he’s bleeding. His wife tells him he needs to retire before he’s irreparably punch-drunk. But we soon learn how desperately he needs to keep going.
We get plenty of Hope’s frustration with his situation, followed by training montages as he works his way back to some semblance of normalcy. With a daughter’s happiness imperiled, it’s easy to root for him. But I appreciated the film’s ability to look somewhat askance at its protagonist, wondering if his cyclical bad behavior is something that can be fixed. But of course it can, and he can learn to control his temper in everyday life by learning to fight better in the ring. Instead of settling into the reality of its characters’ lives, the movie hops to the next expected beat. It never feels like a real situation, but an artificial construct built to fit the needs of its subgenre. It doesn’t breathe like the best of its brethren, where Rocky or Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby (or even Real Steel) color in the specifics of their environments.
Southpaw is on a one-way track to the Big Match. It’s an athletic, well-coordinated display. Gyllenhaal can land convincing blows, and, because the emotions involved are so big, heavy, and unsurprising, the stakes are completely clear. The result is a good replica of a boxing match. It’s exciting and visceral, punches booming so forcefully in the sound mix I wondered what the Foley artists had to do, every jab timed to the usual orchestra of crowd reactions. It’s well made without being completely involving. I sat admiring the technique more than feeling the tension. Because the way there is so pro-forma, it’s hard to stay invested. The movie remains a glossy, well intentioned, but over-familiar narrative beginning to end.