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Originality isn’t a necessary condition for quality movies, but it does help. Southpaw, the latest movie by Training Day filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, is a telegraphed paint-by-numbers boxing drama you’ve seen a hundred times before. Perceptive (or just bored) viewers may leave the theaters in a cloud of prophetic glee having predicted it beat by beat by beat. The formula, as surely taught in screenwriting 101, is rise, fall, and rise again, complete with the expected furnishings. There’s the old cynical trainer—the boxers last hope of winning and redemption (played by a half blind and goateed Forest Whitaker). There’s the down-on-his-luck boxer full of rage, and there’s even the wife (a memorable Rachel McAdams) concerned for her husband’s body and mind. Nothing here is new. To reveal anything of Southpaw’s plot couldn’t be called a spoiler, since you probably know the ending before ever stepping into the theater. These movies are a type, and no matter what Jake Gyllenhaal says in his interview circuit promoting the film, Southpaw doesn’t break the mold in any obvious way.
Southpaw’s successes become a question of iterations and deviations rather than invention, the most important being the highs and lows of family. The plot follows orphan boxer Billy Hope just after winning the championship, who’s compelled to retire after his wife begs him to look after his family. The chemistry in these scenes is a matter of performance rather than direction, but it’s difficult not to get involved. It’s meant to be that way—Southpaw appeals to our instincts to protect family above all else, pushing our buttons from the start to get involved with these characters. This device is a matter of exploitation—it’s not the gifted storytelling of Kurt Sutter’s screenplay or the deft direction of Fuqua that stirs our hearts to the right place, it’s our gut primal response to want to protect children. Shamelessly manipulative or not, it’s an undeniably successful tactic, so when tragedy strikes the Hope family, I was, pardon the pun, hopelessly depressed for the next hour of the movie.
In addition to its drive towards family—which is what Gyllenhaal says initially attracted him to the project—what separates Southpaw from Cinderella Man or Rocky is its willingness to bask in its brooding atmosphere. Sections of Fuqua’s movie are so dour that experiencing the film’s slower second act is downright unpleasant. Like the boxer Hope trains to become, Southpaw is precise in how it hits the audience with its emotional hooks. Hope starts as a doltish, rage-fueled character, closer to a caged animal than man. Frequent readers will know I take issue with movies where it amounts to watching stupid people act stupidly. Sadly, Southpaw has a lot of that its first half: Hope is a frustrating protagonist whose constant bad choices risk him becoming unsympathetic. The too-glossy visuals clash with the rough-and-tumble tone, but the shady characters, locations, and grim lighting compliments the sadder middle of the movie.
One of the film’s strengths, however, is how it turns its darkness and nihilism into a study of shedding ego and preconceived notions of masculinity. Hope learns control whereas lesser films would have pumped him up with revenge. The ‘big fight’ the whole movie builds to is a faceoff between Hope and the man tangentially responsible for the tragedy at the heart of the plot, and instead of an emotional whirlwind of drama and fistpumping revenge, Hope becomes a relaxed, clearheaded character. Southpaw ends on a thematic high note that, in its way, forgives the baser, stupider elements of the plot and screenplay (Sutter’s dialogue won’t steal any awards).
Yes, it’s uneven. Some scenes appear to be missing, leading to a rushed, incohesive structure that rears its ugly head in the third act, like a driver realizing he has to charge from 40 to 80 to get to work on time. The unrelenting dark tone will undoubtedly be a turn off for some, but it’s also what allows a uniquely strong thematic core to slowly take shape. Likewise, Gyllenhaal’s own performance is something of a paradox. Muscled and fierce, he underwent an insane physical transformation to play Hope. More than merely look the part of a boxer, the fight sequences and how he performs them is one of the most powerful moments of big screen acting in 2015. The script relegates him to mumbling, but the weakened humanity of the character forces sympathy even during the film’s ugliest moments.
Gyllenhaal is Southpaw’s greatest asset, and that he’s in almost every scene invigorates this cliched and scattered movie with a needed energy. Knowing nothing of boxing prevents me from having an educated guess on their authenticity, but they carry a biting credibility, and Gyllenhaal is a leading reason why. Playing his daughter, Oona Laurence gives an unusually sensitive performance for a young girl, and their chemistry is a major plus. It must be said, though, that like the rest of the movie, the hard work and talent on both sides of the camera reaps no great reward.
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