Despite a solid performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw amounts to little more than an exercise in clichéd, by the book scriptwriting; it’s a film which has all the simplicity and predictable linearity of a child’s connect-the-dots drawing. But then, what would you expect from the director of Olympus Has Fallen? Like that film’s clear indebtedness to its genetic predecessor Die Hard, Southpaw sees Antoine Fuqua exploring the territory already traversed by Stallone in the Rocky franchise, but without the nostalgic charm or wit those films now provide.
Introducing us to world champion Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) – a fictional personality, despite the film succumbing to all the faults of a badly produced biopic – Southpaw tells the story of his fall and eventual comeback. Beginning with a fight to protect his title, Hope is seen at the top of his game. He basks in the adoration of the sporting world, has the love of a picture-perfect family and boasts a huge mansion for a home. However, paradise begins to slip away from him when a young up and coming boxer called Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Miguel Gomez) interrupts Hope’s post-match press conference to say that he could win in a fight with the champion any day of the week. Initially indifferent to Escobar’s antagonism, Hope’s world is torn apart when his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is killed in a freak accident at a charity event by one of Escobar’s entourage in the midst of a gritty bare-knuckle brawl between the two boxers themselves (a plot point spoilt by the trailer). Thus begins the film’s inane descent into the realm of soap opera theatricality, during which every possible emotional obstacle and hurdle the screenwriters could steal from any generic ‘true life’ TV movie is thrown at Hope. Beaten and pummelled into the underdog role, the stage is set for Hope to reclaim everything he once had (minus Maureen) if he can win the title fight against Escobar under the instruction of boxing trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) – a character who, if not entirely built upon the ‘magical negro’ stereotype, at least shares some uncomfortable characteristics. Without putting too much thought into it, I’m sure you can visualise the basic plot points, twists and turns without even seeing the film – you’ve already seen it before in one thousand other variations. I mean, the character is literally named ‘Hope’ – that’s the film’s trajectory and ultimate ‘message’ right there.
That said, even if it’s formulaic and predictable to a fault (which it is), Southpaw lacks consistency elsewhere. Tonally, it’s all over the place, like a newbie boxer struggling to find his balance having gone one round with Tyson. A constant barrage of melodramatic story arcs spar with, what on paper probably looked like suitable one-liners for comic relief, but in reality come across as jarring or unearned. Similarly, Gyllenhaal’s central performance is certainly praiseworthy (notable above all else for his physical transformation) but is undone in parts by confused editing which sees the character alternate in intensity and presence between cuts within single scenes – as if the editor had spliced together different takes in which Gyllenhaal had been giving completely different types of performances. In one courtroom sequence, it feels like someone suddenly flicks a switch sending Gyllenhaal into a full-on ‘Nicholas Cage breaking down’ mode. Also peculiar is the blend of professional and critically acclaimed acting talent with the casting of personalities such as 50 Cent and Rita Ora.
Whilst some elements of the film are engaging – the actual fight scenes are choreographed brilliantly and feel as natural and spontaneous as an actual boxing match – they are too few and far between to hold the film together and ultimately fail to elevate Southpaw above its tediously routine mediocrity.