Acclaimed director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) steps into the ring with Southpaw, a modern boxing redemption tale. The script comes from the brutal mind of Sons of Anarchy‘s Kurt Sutter and stars a musclebound Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope, a punch-drunk boxing champ from the streets.
Billy and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) came up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and now live in a mansion with their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), thanks to a successful boxing career that has left BIlly’s mind and body on the verge of breaking. When tragedy strikes, Billy loses everything and is forced to go back to his roots to put his life back on track.
If that sounds like the plot of 1990’s Rocky V, starring Sylvester Stallone, that’s because it IS the plot of 1990’s Rocky V, starring Sylvester Stallone. Therein lies the biggest problem with Southpaw: If you’ve seen any other boxing film, you’ve seen Southpaw. Albeit, this one does have Sutter’s gleeful brutalization of his characters through extreme tragedy and torment, but that’s about the only difference.
In fact, Southpaw spends so much time on the depressing, drawn out downfall of Billy Hope that by the time the plot gets around to his redemption, it feels rushed. The film truly gets exhausting at certain points, with genre predictability and character self-destruction, and also enjoys a heaping helping of boxing movie tropes. You want montages? Southpaw‘s got montages.
While the direction and storytelling are Southpaw‘s biggest issues, on the other hand, the performances are the selling point. Jake Gyllenhaal goes all-in with a raw, from-the-gut portrayal of Billy’s fractured psyche, but he never leans too hard on his street accent or mental conditions that could have easily been distracting.
Not surprising to anyone, the always reliable Forest Whitaker steals the show in the perfectly cast role of the trainer, Titus “Tick” Wills, that Billy finds to get his life and career back on track. McAdams also surprises early in the film, with her pivotal, complex portrayal of Maureen in the rough-around-the-edges matriarchal role.
Rounding out the supporting cast, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson does a respectable job as the slick, disloyal promoter with dollar signs in his eyes, but finds himself an afterthought compared to the rest of the cast. The Strain‘s Miguel Gomez plays Billy’s boxing antagonist Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar as a real, layered person at times, while devolving into a mustache-twirling, pro-wrestling villain designed to elicit “boos” from the audience in other scenes. But it’s not necessarily Gomez’s fault – it comes down to what the script demanded.
Southpaw had a lot of talent in front of the camera and behind it, but unfortunately still ends up retreading the same ground as numerous other boxing films. The film boasts some strong performances and should be passable enough to Gyllenhaal fans, or fans of the genre, but it spends too much of its time beating down its characters and recycling boxing movie clichés.