Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Writer: Kurt Sutter.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal. Rachel McAdams. Forest Whitaker. Oona Laurence. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
Running time: 123 mins.
I will try and limit my boxing analogies to a mere dozen but writer Kurt Sutter is renown for packing a mean punch in his creative, ambitious and unrelenting works. He gave us such grim TV journeys as the wildly popular ‘Sons Of Anarchy’ and the woefully underrated cop drama ‘The Shield’. Director Antoine Fuqua has had a mixed bag ranging from the appalling ‘King Arthur’ movie to the likes of ‘The Equaliser’ and ‘Training Day’. This match up of creative artists and a promising trailer led to much buzz about Southpaw with much hidden other than a raging Jake Gyllenhaal fresh off ‘Nightcrawler’ success portraying a wild boxer seemingly descending the spiral staircase of madness. Sadly I wish I’d kept my guard up.
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is our main character and I suppose now that the name should have probably set alarm bells ringing loud and clear like the signal for a final round. He’s a rabid fighter who when we meet him is undefeated and already champion implying the only way is down for our viewing pleasure. A family crisis strikes early and hard sending Billy Hope into an abyss of misery where he must be broken down to be rebuilt as our champion. The first 30mins or so are heavy hitting with a brutal fight, a complex main character, his devoted family and a personal tragedy that you actually feel which is impressive so early into our attachment to the characters. Sadly like a aged heavyweight this film starts strongly simply because it knows it must but then quickly fades away into a fluffy, formulaic fondue of cheese. Every flavour of formulaic plot is blended together with a healthy dollop of style to create a sickly treat, it may fill you up for a while but it leaves a disappointing taste in the mouth.
Jake Gyllenhaal is superb and plays his socially awkward, confused and loving family man well, Hope is lost in the blinding lights of his own fame and when it fades to black he’s truly lost. He fidgets and mumbles like a man reliant on one physical skill for most of his life. This is an anti-hero we can get behind, but the well trodden and safer road he’s forced to walk down makes it harder for him to stand out as the film goes on. Rachel McAdams is predictably charming as elderly name wielding wife Maureen, and in their limited screen her and Gyllenhaal build up more believable chemistry and couple references than most screen duets can manage in a three film franchise. Their back story as childhood friends in an orphanage is promisingly entertaining and therefore obviously ignored for more of ’50 Cent’ preening. Oh the joy. Oona Luarence is far more convincing than her first name, as daughter Laila she’s very good and should be credited for remaining likeable throughout some awkward and potentially painfully cheesey scenes especially towards the end.
The film has a solid core with the cast, promising start to a dark story and the polished yet gritty style but then it begins to stutter like an ill-maintained car into the uneventful slow lane of conformity. The story swerves into the familiar crowd pleasing fluff and tries to retain its edge and relevance with forced, trendy polish. Rita Ora is in for no reason whatsoever and is somehow credited for the mercifully short 3 lines she gets to play with. Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson is included as slimy promoter Jordan Maines and for a larger than life persona has as much screen presence as small bowl of lukewarm water, he’s not there on merit and plays his part with all the enthusiasm of a bankrupt sloth. The most interesting thing about him is his choice of hat which given a drawn on face could have probably given a better performance. Naomie Harris is a great actress playing a character so dull that it’s actually odd and unsettling when she tries to give it some warmth, like asking a robot to describe a sunrise you know it should be nice but it’s just cold and strange. Eminem’s soundtrack blast over sometimes ill-fitting scenes with a desperation as these random square pegs are relentlessly hammered into the round holes of the plot, it shows little faith in the films core strength and actually damages it overall.
That’s not to mean it’s down for the count as the story style is formulaic for a reason, it’s a tale of redemption as old as time and although it won’t stand out it will blend into the inoffensive tapestry of safe sports films. There is some humour and initial drama, the leads are well played including a solid Forest Whittaker playing the grumpy mentor constructed from the old parts of every sports coach in cinema ever. It’s well shot with close ups, slow motions and shaky cam making the fights feel and primal as they should. The script is mostly solid and believable apart from when Leila is asked “is that your dad?” and replies with a line so drenched in ill-placed and over dramatic angst its felt more fitted to a pantomime production of ‘Mean Girls’. It’s just a shame in a time where we have films such as ‘The Fighter’, ‘Cinderella Man’ this feels more like ‘Fighting’ or ‘Never Back Down’, a flashy cash in on a trending culture. There’s a pinch of everything such as Hope’s real friends, the state of media, depression and loss but it’s all fleeting with no impact like. I’m sure there was an internal bet as to how many clichéd story mechanics they could fit in, to the point where one about ‘Hoppy’ is injected randomly as from a crazed, drunk dentist. So much so I actually laughed at the potentially heartbreaking but obscenely forced moment, the bland icing on a plain, cliche cake. Oh and don’t worry, there is a genre stipulated montage.
This movie is like its first prom, nervous and so desperate for people to think it’s pretty. This is a perfectly solid project but tries to do too much and ultimately does little at all, what could have been a heart wrenching look into the mind of a broken man fighting in and out of the ring became a steady plod through the fields of nostalgia. Fellow Fake Geek Mike Rhodes described this film as “Schlocky Balboa” and I have no doubt it will be marked as such. Yet instead of making ‘Rocky for a new generation’ why not make a new film by a new generation? It feels like instead of going for glory and making a mark they were happy to try to avoid any risks and win on points leaving fans like myself wanting more.
The verdict: When it can to the hype this presented itself like a champion, though when it came to the main event it was barely a contender. It is hard to mark it too low as it’s so inoffensive. So I guess I’m not angry Southpaw, I’m just disappointed.