If you’ve ever seen a boxing movie (or an underdog story in general), you can see every story beat coming in Southpaw from a mile away.
The story feels like a lazy man’s Rocky III. It follows Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), an undefeated championship boxer who wins fights by letting his opponents wear themselves out pummeling him. (In this regard, it’s more of a lazy man’s “The Homer They Fall” episode of The Simpsons. And yes, his last name is actually Hope, in case you were worried this film might have even an ounce of subtlety.) Things are going well for Billy – he has a trophy wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and a precocious daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) – but it all starts to unravel when he’s publicly challenged by an up-and-coming fighter named Clubber Lan … er, I mean, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).
Escobar calls out Hope a second time at a charity event. This time he also makes crude comments about Maureen, which is enough to convince Billy to exchange blows with him. The film takes a nihilistic turn when during the scuffle a member of Escobar’s entourage takes out a gun and accidentally shoots Maureen.
If that wasn’t enough, everything else in Hope’s life immediately crumbles. He’s broke, his grief-stricken alcohol binges cost him his daughter and his post-fight assault on a referee get him suspended for a year.
Having lost everything, Hope – a former orphan who came up through the system (because, of course) – returns to the other side of the tracks to start training again. He stumbles into Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker)’s Noble Savage Gym, where Tick fulfills his expected role as a vaguely-defined minority character who is there to teach our white hero important life lessons. (In an added insidious twist, another minority character is later killed off-screen to teach Billy yet another hard lesson.)
The film follows the expected tropes from there. About two-thirds of the way through, someone remembers the film is called Southpaw and Tick starts telling Billy he needs to punch with his left hand if he’s going to beat Escobar. This conceit feels incredibly tacked on, especially since Billy’s established obstacle to overcome up to that point is a lack of defense.
To the film’s credit, the boxing scenes are actually quite enjoyable. Director Antoine Fuqua shoots the fights in a visceral close up style that makes you feel immersed in Hope’s battles. And Gyllenhaal, to his credit, convincingly sells these bouts, sporting an unexpectedly impressive physique to boot.
The only thing that bothered me about the fight scenes were how incredibly-unsubtle they were in their promotion of HBO. I get that HBO is a natural tie-in for a boxing film, but if you took a shot every time someone mentioned the cable network or its logo popped up on the screen, you’d be in a coma.
Also, as much as I enjoyed the fight scenes,the film’s climactic bout had an overly-convoluted ending that robbed it of a pretty easy feel good moment. Instead of ending on a natural high note, it plods along to a much less satisfying conclusion.
It doesn’t help that the film never bothers to develop Escobar as a villain. We never understand his motivation for antagonizing Hope, which could just be a desire to win the title, but that stops making sense once Billy loses everything. Considering Escobar’s actions inadvertently led to Hope’s wife’s death, it would be nice to understand why he continues to antagonize the man when he has nothing. Instead we are left with a bland, mustache-twirling antagonist.
Of course, everything outside of the fight sequences was even worse. I thought Gyllenhaal, McAdams and Laurence gave charismatic performances, but their storyline was so joyless and dull that I had trouble caring about Hope’s life outside of the ring.
There are so many better classic boxing films out there. I recommend saving your money and popping in a Rocky DVD instead. Southpaw is just a sad reminder that the glory days of boxing – and boxing films – are long behind us.