starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Rachel McAdams
screenplay by Kurt Sutter
directed by Antoine Fuqua
by Walter Chaw TV-writer Kurt Sutter breaks into feature-screenwriting by amalgamating Taxi Driver with Raging Bull in a movie that has the distinction of being not only the second film of 2015 with Fiddy Cent in it for some inexplicable reason, but also the second film that Jake Gyllenhaal shares with a little slow-motion girl on a trampoline. Southpaw has the distinction, too, of being the second picture in a row following Nightcrawler that is absolutely not the equal of Mr. Gyllenhaal's performance in it. Antoine Fuqua's latest is a rote, by-the-numbers sports melodrama that ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions, meaning that although it's shooting for Rocky and Requiem for a Heavyweight, it ends up as Real Steel. It wants to be gritty like the American '70s, see, but if Disney made ultra-violent boxing movies, this is exactly what they'd be like: dead mother and all. The real wonder of it all is that Fuqua manages to match every one of Sutter's overused sports clichés with an overused Scorsese homage. That's the real toe-to-toe slugfest, sports fans.
Gyllenhaal is Billy "Great White" Hope, a light-heavyweight champ who waits until he's brutalized to the point of animal rage to unleash his animus. The moral of the story is that the way to beat the ever-loving shit out of someone is to be psychopathically calm while you're doing it. It's a hard lesson to learn, as Billy is provoked by cartoon-evil contender Miguel (Miguel Gomez) to the point of Billy's wife Mo (Rachel McAdams) getting gunned down one day in an incident that is just this side of racist punchline. Billy has an adorable, precocious 10-year-old (Oona Laurence--magnificent) counting on him not to lose his temper no more, and to that end, he enlists the help of Bagger Vance boxing manager Tick (Forest Whitaker) in a role that Morgan Freeman would have played a few years ago and did in fact in Million Dollar Baby. Life imitating art ironically, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson co-stars as the Don King who drives Billy to bankruptcy with bad contracts. Cue training montage, big fight, tearful redemption, unearned tingle.
Gyllenhaal is great in a role that's easy to play but difficult to humanize. His moments with Laurence--execrably written though they are in an I Am Sam sort of way--still somehow feel authentic; Southpaw doesn't deserve them. (It doesn't deserve any of its performances, really.) The fight sequences, during Moments of Truth especially, go from medium shots to the kind of close-ups that make it impossible to tell what's happening. At times during the prefab BIG FIGHT I had trouble distinguishing between the combatants. I'm blaming the cinematography and editing, but I want to come clean and say that I didn't give much of a shit--knowing, as I did, how the film would turn out. If you don't know how Southpaw is going to end, then this is the first movie you've ever seen and you should have started with a better one. Whitaker is a fine actor, reduced to playing a stock supporting character, and Southpaw is so absolutely shameless and familiar that its final derivative moment rips off, of all things, The Karate Kid. In other words, with all the high-melodrama and histrionics, it finally, fatally crosses the line into comedy. Southpaw is an awards-season film dumped in late summer. Gyllenhaal deserves better. And he has no one to blame but himself.