Southpaw (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Southpaw (2015)

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Billy Hope, 42-0 Lightweight Champion of the World, keeps his focus and his fighting spirit thanks to the love of his wife Maureen.  When his wife is killed in a violent clash gone awry, his life disappears in a cloud of legal action and drugs.  Looking to find focus in his life once more, he turns to Tick, a tough trainer, to figure out what he can do with the time he has left in this life.  Antoine Fuqua directs Southpaw from a screenplay written by Kurt Sutter and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams.

LoveWith each new film, Jake Gyllenhaal proves he is the best actor of his generation.  The string he had between 2013 and 2014 with Prisoners, Enemy, and Nightcrawler is as good a run as any of the classic leading men can get.  Not bad for a guy who partly got his start in a road trip film while encased in a bubble.  Now he's back in a different kind of physically demanding role, and while his acting chops are up for the task of Southpaw the rest of the movie leaves him stranded in half-realized thematic strings and many scenes of empty exposition.

This came as a huge surprise for two reasons.  The first is that Sons of Anarchy creator, and boisterous personality, Kurt Sutter wrote the screenplay for Southpaw.  The second is that it is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who has been a solid director for so long that it's a bit surprising Southpaw and last year's The Equalizer both function as a sort of action / drama vehicle for their respective stars, and both come up short of expectations.  If there's anyone who I thought could bring out the fire from Fuqua which fueled the excellent Training Day it would have been Sutter, but the result is a muted experience from both.

If I had to lay the brunt of the mediocre result of Southpaw on anyone it would have to be Sutter's screenplay.  There's are some typical elements of hard masculinity and the welcome addition of fairly strong women characters.  But Sutter introduces these in a boxing storyline which was old by the time Rocky IV came around without the added ridiculousness of the Cold War fantasy come to life.  Boxer has a fall from grace, struggles to get back to his feet, and return swinging away to the top.  Heck, Jerry Maguire had a similar outline and that was about a sports agent instead of a prize-fighter.

Get used to seeing Hope slouched in the corner, because that's a common visual motif for about half of Southpaw.

Get used to seeing Hope slouched in the corner, because that's a common visual motif for about half of Southpaw.

But as I said with Magic Mike XXL, great movies can be assembled from overly familiar parts all the time.  But the execution of Southpaw, where we have to bring in Fuqua, that keeps Gyllenhaal from really bringing the story to murky depths.  There's just nothing special about the direction or visuals of Southpaw.  It's almost like it was filmed with a standard guidebook on how to show what character is feeling what emotion and when.  Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is constantly filmed in slumped over in a corner when he's sad, the boxing matches themselves are curiously distant with the sweat and blood produced in not nearly as high a volume as the thunks on the soundtrack would indicate.  There's little bark or bite, but a frequently somber portrayal of a sad man who happens to box.

There's promise in this setup, and it fueled one of the all-time great movies when Martin Scorsese examined similar territory in Ranging Bull.  But early in Southpaw one of the only interesting dynamics, the relationship between Hope and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), comes to a halt when she dies from a gunshot intended for him.  Their few moments together are tender and lovely, and I liked how the intimacy they share with each other also extended to the way they try to involve their daughter in all aspects of their life outside the ring.  Yet, after she's killed, the emotional safety net which turns Hope into a penniless drug addict is primarily dealt with off-screen while the on-screen action is primarily devoted to the economic fall.

Even then, the potential for visualizing the corrupt business work of those moments is relegated to shots of eviction notices being put up, stuff being moved out, and the standard "you're bleeding money" scene.  This moves Southpaw away from the wonderful tenderness of the opening scenes and into what looks like a series of stock footage moments.  A couple of the shots grabbed me, particularly the way Hope is filmed as a violent barely seen monster in the ring only to be turned into a glamorous and clearly seen icon of strength outside, but overall I got tired of seeing the same sad Hope in the corner shots in between the shots moving the plot forward.

Tick's grey eye and reluctant sympathy glimpsed through his tough exterior give Whitaker a great character to work with even if Southpaw doesn't do much with him.

Tick's grey eye and reluctant sympathy glimpsed through his tough exterior give Whitaker a great character to work with even if Southpaw doesn't do much with him.

Back to Sutter's screenplay, it's surprising his bite from the small screen doesn't carry over at all.  When Forest Whitaker shows up as a no-nonsense trainer nicknamed Tick ready to build Hope back up his dialogue ends up consisting mostly of training requirements and standard mentorly advice.  The one moment where the tension in Gyllenhaal and Whitaker's performances could have exploded, when Hope tells the trainer he won a fight against Tick's protegé because of some shady dealings,  is introduced and dismissed so quickly that the scene ends up as exciting as a business deal.  In part, that's what the scene is, but both men are presented as coiled, angry, and somewhat desperate so the scene rings like a false stepping stone to get Hope back in the ring instead of a painful conversation between two people who know the toll of boxing.

Between the business deals and typical training montages it could have been dull, but Gyllenhaal keeps even the dull outline tense.  Unlike Jake LaMotta, Billy Hope is a good man who treats his family well but gets a thrill out of being hit.  Gyllenhaal's conflict plays out in a series of violent and sad tics in his face, and without his wife's calming influence wanders around like a wounded child with no home.  It's what makes his scenes with Whitaker so potent, because Tick knows what this simplistic man is capable of and has to negotiate a tricky balance between his own pride and Hope's violent impulses.  To Fuqua's credit as well, the death of Maureen leads to some great visual moments where Hope is framed as the destructive phantom of his own home, hiding his wounded face not behind a mask but with drugs and alcohol.

Those moments just aren't enough to counteract the rest of the traditional story behind Southpaw.  It could have been the kitchen-sink answer to the mythological fighting films like Rocky or Warrior, but the occasional (and welcome) dips into the long shadow on Hope's life and his complicated rotation of facial expressions keep Southpaw straddling awkwardly between two worlds.  Gyllenhaal is still at the top of his game, but maybe Fuqua and Sutter could stand a gruff mentor of their own to get them back on track.

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Tail - SouthpawSouthpaw (2015)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Screenplay written by Kurt Sutter.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams.

Posted by Andrew

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