Antoine Fuqua, Billy Hope, Boxing, Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson, Drama, Forest Whitaker, Jake Gyllenhaal, Legal custody, Light heavyweight, Naomie Harris, Oona Laurence, Rachel McAdams, Review, Shooting, Wills' Gym, World Champion
D: Antoine Fuqua / 124m
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Naomie Harris, Skylan Brooks, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez
Billy ‘The Great’ Hope (Gyllenhaal) is both the light heavyweight boxing champion of the world and undefeated in forty-three professional fights. Defending his title against the latest challenger, Billy’s lack of defence causes the fight to last longer and take more of a toll. His wife, Maureen (McAdams) feels he should take some time off to fully recover, while his manager, Jordan Mains (Jackson), wants him to sign a lucrative contract with a TV network for three further fights. And another boxer, young and cocky Miguel ‘Magic’ Escobar (Gomez), is trying to goad Billy into letting him challenge for the title.
At a charity event, a brawl between Billy and Miguel ends in tragedy when one of Miguel’s entourage accidentally shoots and kills Maureen. Devastated, Billy retreats from his daughter, Leila (Laurence), and embarks on a self-destructive path that sees him accept the TV network offer but lose the first fight in embarrassing fashion when he punches the referee, lose his licence to box professionally, be let go by Mains, lose his home and property through mounting debts, and when he tries to kill himself, he loses custody of Leila as well. Charged by the court to straighten himself out, Billy turns to boxing coach Tate Wills (Whitaker) to help him get back in the ring and in turn, regain custody of Leila. When it’s clear he’s back in shape and boxing better than ever, Mains reappears and offers him a fight he can’t refuse: against Miguel, now the light heavyweight champion of the world.
On paper at least, Southpaw should have been a sure-fire winner (or in boxing parlance, a knockout). With a director known for his visual flair and aptitude for strong male characters, a lead actor who – Accidental Love (2015) aside – is on one of the hottest streaks of recent years, and the screenwriter who created Sons of Anarchy, this tale of riches to rags to redemption should have been a gripping examination of one man’s descent into despair, and his journey back to a more stable life.
But alas, Southpaw is a movie that consistently disappoints the viewer and sticks to such a precisely engineered, formulaic script that when there is a moment of unexpected originality, it sticks out like a sore thumb. And all this despite another physically demanding performance from Gyllenhaal, but one that is strangely lacking in the kind of passion that would have made Billy a lot more sympathetic. As it is, he’s a sullen presence throughout, and not very likeable either. McAdams and Whitaker fare better, taking the flimsiness of their characters and making them appear to have more depth than they actually have. But in the acting stakes it’s Laurence who steals the show (and somebody needed to), giving yet another outstanding child performance. Behind the lens, Fuqua doesn’t seem to have the energy to vary the tempo, leaving some scenes feeling flatter than others, while the estimable Mauro Fiore’s photography is reduced to showcase scenes that are so underlit that it makes you wonder if the production couldn’t afford lighting rigs or spots.
Rating: 6/10 – too predictable and too bland despite the punishing boxing matches and the various attempts at emotionally manipulating its audience, Southpaw falls short of being a great boxing movie; it ticks all the boxes marked cliché, and never once tries to lift itself up off the canvas and land a killer blow.