Pounded into form with blunt repetition that’s usually reserved for making horseshoes, Southpaw is an early potential awards contender that’s trained under the best. From Rocky, it’s picked up the hardscrabble fight of an inner city underdog; from Raging Bull, a temper that burns hot enough to self-immolate. What Southpaw fails to showcase is any technique in its skillset worth calling its own. Every move is one that’s been practiced and perfected countless times already by other entrants in a crowded genre, with Southpaw boiling the sweet sciences of boxing and sports drama down to their crudest formula.
Resembling a scarecrow less than a year ago for Nightcrawler, a now marble-cut Jake Gyllenhaal stars as prizefighter and undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy Hope. Like his entourage and wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), Billy grew up on the streets of New York a ward of the state. Unloved and violent as a youth, adored and more productively violent as a pugilist, Billy’s 43rd straight victory that opens the film gets Southpaw started out on comfortable footing. The fight, as directed by the prolific of late Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), captures the electric timbre and bloody escalation one associates with big screen boxing, not most pay-per-views.
The opening scenes work Southpaw’s fundamentals, effectively establishing Billy’s aggressive fighting style, contented family life, and easily summoned anger. Among Billy’s many body tattoos (which suggest he might be the bastard son of Ed Hardy) are the words “Father” and “Fighter,” one adorning each arm. The ink tells you everything about the brushstroke size Fuqua is painting with that Billy’s last name might leave unclear. But there are small moments early on that feint at something more. Quiet scenes of Billy taping up his gloves, sharing victory in private with Maureen, or dealing with the ache of a 10-round hangover give the impression that Southpaw might pull from outside the usual playbook.
Fuqua has elevated brawn-over-brain material as recently as The Equalizer, but hope he can do the same for Southpaw fades quickly. Friction between Billy and a new title contender (Miguel Gomez) leads to a burst of entourage-on-entourage violence at a charity event, the result being Maureen’s tragic death in Billy’s arms. Once McAdams exits the picture, so too does Southpaw’s interest in aspiring to be anything other than a beat for beat, pound for pound exercise in sports redemption cliché.
The pedigree of Southpaw makes it a movie that relies heavily on intensity, not originality. Rather than trying to duck genre conventions, the script, from Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, works like a fracking operation: blood, sweat, and tears flow in, misery burbles out. Once Billy loses his wife, the money, friends, and title belt soon follow. Even when his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence) is taken into protective custody, Billy is still a couple sub-basements away from rock bottom. Southpaw abuses its protagonist like a muscle, wearing him down scene after scene under the assumption that this will make his eventual rehabilitation more powerful.
The problem is that Southpaw is all impact and no follow through. Characters only exist to reiterate what a bum Billy is for the first hour, then function as plot props for his comeback in the second. You know exactly what Forest Whitaker’s role will be the moment he’s introduced as Billy’s pickled former-trainer, just as you know that any contract-waving, bejeweled manager is never to be trusted.
The accidental meta-humor of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson playing the latter as a successful business mogul is the closest thing Southpaw develops to a light touch. Fuqua and Sutter prove unfortunate enablers for one another’s grittier impulses. Heavy use of close-ups does better by some impressive makeup work than the performers, with a rare master shot of Billy sitting down with a social worker (Naomie Harris, wasted like much of the supporting cast) hitting you with the surprise of a sucker punch. The energy of the camera and drama make a botch of scenes both big and small, with Maureen’s death winding up as overwrought and frenetic as a simple shot of her coffin.
It’s bad enough that the script lacks for subtlety, with Southpaw reaching new lows for commentator play-by-play telling you the subtext –literally, a commentator at one point says, “There’s a lot of subtext to this fight,” before listing off the emotions at play in Billy’s final, arc-completing match. But what could have been a saving grace in Gyllenhaal turns out to be just another victim of Southpaw’s hammers-only toolkit. A Balboa-class dunce with none of the charm, Billy’s overriding rage makes him a frustrating and shallow character for Gyllenhaal, who’s restricted to working a single emotion each scene like a punching bag. Southpaw hopes the combined force of will exhibited by its marquee trio will knock you out, but they’re just beating a dead awards horse.
Tired and dependent on amped up theatrics, Southpaw suggests the boxing drama genre is in as healthy a shape as the sport itself.