– by David Morgan-Brown
Most sports movies are about motivation and inspiration, especially when they revolve around the sports that involve people beating the hell out of each other. To fill in the time til the next not-so-Rocky movie Creed comes out, we have Southpaw, a relatively effective, yet incredibly familiar new sports film that’s helping lay down the foundation for a new breed of sports movie clichés.
The star of Southpaw is the right-handed Jake Gyllenhaal, who tries his best to make this film watchable, as Billy, who’s at the top of his game at the beginning of the film – he excels in his boxing career, has a large mansion, a loving wife and daughter, plenty of good friends who certainly don’t like him just for his fame, and things seem to go pretty swimmingly for him. But in a very short amount of time, Billy goes from the top to the bottom – a tragedy in his family occurs, he loses his title-ship, he loses all of his money, his daughter is taken away by child services, and his downward spiral leaves him near-broke, but still determined to bring himself back up with the help of his old boxing gym and its owner Titus ‘Tick’ Wills (Forest Whitaker).
In just one montage sequence and one fight match, Billy manages to train himself with the mentoring of Tick and soon enough finds himself in a match with his nemesis, ready and willing to reclaim the respect of all his former fans, and all it took him was an inspirational rap song by Eminem.
The film’s attempts at progressing the plot and motivating our protagonist come across as hallow sometimes. Another ‘tragic’ death occurs to someone who has had hardly enough screen-time to be missed by the audience (if they can even remember them). The uncomfortable aspect of fixed fighting for gambling benefits is also brought up in the film, but it never really invades or has much effect on the overall story, even though it could’ve brought so much tension to the boxing scenes.
Billy’s relationship with the estranged daughter Leila is more believable because even though he has to train to reclaim his entire career, trying to get his daughter back on his side is considerably more difficult and requires more endurance from him. But it’s in these moments that the film reveals it’s wearing its themes on its sleeve, literally – Billy’s cursively-inked tattoo ‘Father’ on his arm is often visible in these scenes. Another laughably massive giveaway is Billy’s last name, Hope. About as subtle as a bag of bricks to the face.
Despite their underwritten and uncharacteristic roles, Gyllenhaal and Whitaker give everything they can and seem to breathe a little life in a dead script. Maybe Whitaker is becoming a little too typecast for these aging mentor roles, but he can perform them with a restrained aplomb. Gyllenhaal has bulked out for this role and his on-screen presence is unlike anything he’s done before, he has a ferocity in him that is best seen in the boxing match scenes (and the fantastic make-up that makes him look all the more brutish is a nice touch as well).
All in all, Southpaw has the talent with its cast and a more than commendable director, but the foundation of the film (the screenplay/story) lets them all down. Overburdened with predictable drama and oddly enough for a film about inspiration a very significant lack of any humour or lightheartedness, this is the “dark and “brooding” version of Rocky that isn’t called Raging Bull. This tame boxing film doesn’t end up making the best of its clichés and cringey moments – here’s hoping Creed can stand with fists raised in triumph instead.