Friday 4 October 2019

Movie Review: Southpaw (2015)

A boxing drama, Southpaw piles on the genre cliches in thick layers, but features good production values and a willing cast, along with pounding ring action.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the undisputed and undefeated light heavyweight boxing champion. Both he and his wife and confidant Maureen (Rachel McAdams) were orphans who had nothing as children. Now they can afford a lavish lifestyle, a grand mansion and private school for their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Billy does possess a quick temper and depends on Maureen to manage most of life's details.

His aggressive no-defence boxing style also means he takes severe punishments during his bouts, and his latest victory comes with significant facial injuries and a deep cut over his left eye. Maureen pleads with him to consider retiring, but his manager Jordan Mains (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) is eager to line up a string of high profile money-making fights. A tragedy befalls the family, and Billy loses everything. He turns to down-to-earth trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to rebuild his life and career.

A most traditional fall-and-rise story, Southpaw almost chokes on banality. All the elements are recycled from the rich history of boxing movies, and writer Kurt Sutter surrenders early and often to every possible obvious platitude and broad emotion.

Hope's name, his hardscrabble upbringing, inability to control his temper, and contribution to his own downfall and the loss of a perfect wife and child come straight from the big book of boxing bromide. The triteness continues throughout the second half, a long road to redemption that starts with cleaning toilets and passess through learning what matters in life all the way towards a rousing shot at reclaiming past glories combined with revenge in one fatty roll.

Stuck in a swamp of the mundane, director Antoine Fuqua does have excellent talent working for him in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker. Gyllenhaal occasionally slips into his almost comatose low-key mode, but otherwise maximizes all the available compassion within the Billy Hope character to provide the movie with a beating heart. Whitaker takes the overly familiar grizzled-trainer-in-a-derelict-gym and gives him undeserved grace and regency.

Fuqua also brings admirable and often bloody intensity to the boxing scenes. Without fully avoiding Hollywood's propensity to portray every bout as non-stop punch-fest, the training scenes do give the strategy aspects some prominence. The same concentration of energy is carried to all of life's events between the bouts, every turn in Hope's fortunes amplified to eleven.

Southpaw is as predictable as a weigh-in brawl, but carries the shine of a boxing ring under the lights.

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