Touted by its marketing materials as “the best boxing movie since Raging Bull”, Antoine Fuqua’s sports-drama has generated considerable expectations for itself. Jake Gyllenhaal’s “beast-mode” physique and tales of production meetings taking place inside the gym have been all over the movie press in the build-up for Southpaw, but does the film live up to the hype and rank amongst sports classics?
In terms of performances, the answer is “certainly”. Gyllenhaal continues to prove himself as one of Hollywood’s most capable leading men under 40, sinking into the Billy Hope persona with a commitment that goes far beyond his muscular physicality. When Hope falls from glory following a personal tragedy, Gyllenhaal perfectly captures the essence of a man who can win in a fight against anything but his own pent-up rage. From the punch-drunk maniac in the ring through to the broken man wracked with guilt, Gyllenhaal never misses a beat. He meets his match opposite Oona Laurence, the 13-year old actress playing the daughter that Hope loses custody of following his breakdown; she shows an impressive emotive range as the young girl stuck in the system, confused and alone.
Unfortunately, it is Southpaw’s tired writing and wayward narrative direction that undermines the dedication of its stars. The plot meanders lazily between bleak social care and generic training montages, opening up potentially interesting story threads and ditching them before they have time to develop into anything fulfilling. Rita Ora appears for 2 minutes in an almost useless scene, while one key plot point receives no resolution at all. At its core, Southpaw doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, seemingly split between attempting gritty dramatics whilst at the same time churning out a run-off-the-mill redemption story. The genre cliches are all in attendance, Forest Whitaker’s dependable ability is particularly squandered as the no-nonsense coach, an empty character so contrived that it’s difficult to really take seriously.
Thankfully the fight scenes are excellently constructed, choreographed and shot for maximum engagement. The production consulted and filmed with the HBO teams responsible for televising pay-per-view fights, giving a welcome breath of realism and a refined attention to detail in the eyebrow-splitting sequences. For all its faults, there is entertainment to be had with this movie but it is far from being “the best boxing movie since Raging Bull“. A tremendous lead performance from Gyllenhaal and strong moments from the supporting cast make Southpaw an adequately watchable experience, if a little draining with its weighty running time (over 2 hours). You just can’t help but wonder whether Fuqua needs to be more decisive, picking a definite direction and following it, rather than attempting to incorporate so many elements that his films become muddled and unfocused.
★ ★ ★
Southpaw is on wide release in UK & US Cinemas now.