I’m an eclectic movie watcher for the most part, but I’ve tended to watch and review mostly genre movies for the purposes of this blog. But I’m not just a sci-fi/horror nerd. I like other stuff too, y’know! Hot on the heels of Friday night’s double-bill of Carnage Park and Southbound, I followed Jupiter Ascending with Antoine Fuqua’s boxing melodrama Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker. Even if you haven’t seen it, you can successfully see every move the story makes before it happens.
I wouldn’t say I’m a sporty guy, but I love football (soccer, to you folks in the Colonies) and I have a more-than-passing interest in boxing and MMA fights. I’m enthralled by violence – I enjoy the vicarious thrill of violent movies and I am fascinated by the personal one-on-one violence that we inflict on one another. Boxing is the “civilized”, controlled way of watching the trainwreck of two people beating the hell out of each other for our entertainment, both the real kind of Ali, Hagler, Duran, and Jones Jr, and the hyper-realized superhuman world of Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, where men can take gigantic amounts of physical punishment and deal it out in equal measure. The more “realistic” brutality of Raging Bull, however, is just a more up-close-and-personal version of reality like Stallone’s endless Rocky saga, and joining this pantheon is Southpaw, written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). Here, the versatile Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy, Donnie Darko) plays Billy Hope, a 43-0 world champion boxer, whose life spirals out of control following the death of his wife, played by Mean Girls’ Rachel McAdam (good death scene, I thought).
In all honesty, I might not have taken a look at this movie. I’m not a follower of Fuqua so much, and I haven’t watched Sons of Anarchy – I am, however, a fan of Gyllenhaal, and have been since Donnie Darko. He’s one of the few actors whose movies I will make a point of seeing at some point, even if I don’t make it to the cinema first time around. In fact, the cast is pretty solid – McAdam is dolled up as a hot WAG, but I liked her character. The part could easily have gone to someone of lesser ability like Margo Robbie, and it would have been fine, but McAdam lends some degree of authenticity where none was really needed: the movie is all about Billy Hope, his big life, his fall, and his possible redemption. Likewise, Forest Whitaker as the movie’s Mickey figure, is a good presence at the heart of the second half of the movie – I actually wanted to see more of him.
I have big criticisms of this movie, and while I don’t have a lot to praise, it was nevertheless a decent watching experience. The first half is WAY too heavy on setup: it feels like act 1 takes well over half an hour, and by the time act 2 finally comes around, there isn’t enough time for act 2 to develop story or character organically, instead, the truncated length is more of a highlight reel than anything else, there’s no real depth to much of it.
Despite bulking up for the part, Gyllenhaal isn’t really called upon to stretch his talents much. Taking into account his body of work, he can at least say he’s now played a boxer, even if there was no real meat on the bones of the character to play with. Sutter’s screenplay is unremarkable – not lazy, but unambitious. It’s like all he wanted to do was write a “boxing movie” and no more than that, and when he wrote FADE OUT, he was done.
There’s literally nothing about this redemption story that you haven’t seen before, which is a shame, because Southpaw is a movie that could have done a lot more by using a lot less. It’s one of those sad facts of Hollywood that everything has to be big in order to be meaningful, as though the events themselves are the measure of the character, instead of the characters defining themselves through inner, and not outer, strength. There’s a point at this movie where Hope takes a step towards his final redemptive act, but for me, this step should have been what the second half of the movie built toward. It’s a natural final step towards a potential future, and it actually accomplishes what the movie’s climax does too, but in a more meaningful way. Unfortunately, Sutter uses it a stepping stone to simply reset the status quo. Taken as it is, the character who actually gains more in this movie is that played by Forest Whitaker, but his character never rises above co-star status. It’s like watching a movie where an asshole millionaire loses his money, finds humility, then becomes a millionaire again – what’s the actual point of that story? What is the actual arc of that character?
With the story choices Sutter made, Southpaw just becomes a familiar story that we’ve all seen before – whether in terms of boxing, or redemption-themed movies. There are no surprises, no real tension, no real insight into the psyche of Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope. He doesn’t so much undergo a great inner transformation, he just kinda listens to better advice and that’s that. Somewhere out there there’s a boxer’s redemption story we haven’t seen before, but Southpaw, while worth watching, isn’t it.
© Andrew Hope, 2016
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