When the first image for Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw (2015) was released online of a muscle-bound Jake Gyllenhaal audiences became very excited. The anticipation was in part due to the Gyllenhaal’s remarkable performance as the ghoulish Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014). The physical transformation from the wraith-like Bloom to Southpaw‘s central protagonist Billy promised much. In reality, what has been delivered is a tired, dreary contribution to the boxing movie genre.
A rippling Gyllenhaal hulks across the screen as a heavyweight boxer at the top of his game.His life couldn’t be better; he’s a champion, married to beautiful childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams) – who he fell in love with in foster care – and has a sparky daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Hope buys his friends expensive gifts and lives in a palatial home. The first bell heard are the alarms ringing in the audience’s mind – how will Billy be brought down? His life is radically transformed when a member of a rival boxer’s crew kills his wife during a charity gala.
All this occurs in the first act and from here on out it feels as if Fuqua and his screenwriter Kurt Stutter fail to find the direction in which they wanted to take the movie, while at the same time being happy to riff on every boxing film cliché at their disposal. Worse still, Stutter and Fuqua repeatedly set up subplots that are never resolved, or, if they are, they are handled in the dreariest of manners. Maureen’s death sends Billy into a downward spiral of violence and booze, where his mad and bad inner-self is unleashed, resulting in his daughter being taken away into foster care. Abandoned by almost everyone, Billy is turfed out of house and home and left down and out. He has to rebuild his life, get back in the ring and get his daughter back. Finding work cleaning a gym he meets ex-coach Tick Willis (Forest Whittaker). It’s only when we step out of the ring to see the moments between Billy and his daughter that Southpaw becomes more engaging.
Oona Laurence demonstrates an incredible range and tugs at the heart-strings playing a daughter reeling from the death of her mother and feeling abandoned by her father who lacks the emotional goods to help her. On the other hand, Southpaw is an incredibly frustrating waste of Gyllenhaal’s talents. No one could accuse him of not being sincere in his efforts to make Billy as rounded a character as possible, but no matter how much effort he puts in he’s unable to overcome the dull-witted direction and tired script. Part of the fun of boxing films is how they play with traditional tropes, but Southpaw lacks any sense of invention. Fuqua’s punch-drunk direction radically fails to navigate the ducks and weaves adequately. Fortunately, fans of the genre can salve their bruises and wounds with the promise of Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015), starring Michael B. Jordan, due out later this year.