Film Review: Southpaw

Written by Aaron Sarnecky

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SOUTHPAW PLOT SUMMARY:

Light heavyweight champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is living the good life. He has money, a loving family, and a growing legacy. But when he wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), is killed in an incident, Billy’s world falls apart. Now Billy must conquer his grief and his demons and return to boxing, or lose it all forever.

Boxing is not nearly as popular as it used to be. Most of us know that. In a sports world that’s increasingly interested in MMA and the UFC, boxing looks like a tired vestige of the past. But boxing is more than the sport. In Hollywood, it’s practically its own sub-genre. Some of the most lauded films of all-time, such as Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Fighter, are about boxing. And even as the sport’s popularity wanes, boxing films remain a tradition in American cinema. It’s in the industry’s DNA.

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It’s this rich history that compelled the team behind Southpaw to make sure that the film was not about mixed martial artists, but classical pugilists. But in doing so, director Antoine Fuqua chose to enter the ring, so to speak, with the greats of the past. All that being said, the inciting event and emotional journey of Southpaw set it somewhat apart.

A significant portion of the film is devoted to Billy’s downward spiral due to Maureen’s death. (This is not at all a spoiler because it has been featured heavily the movie’s promotions.) The commercials and trailers, however, misrepresent the incident, making it look like Billy provokes another boxer’s bodyguard to fire his gun when Billy assaults him. And it’s all because the boxer mildly taunts Billy. However, what Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) actually says to him in the film is very derogatory towards Maureen, who is fatally shot by a member of the Escobar’s posse, not a bodyguard. That being said, Billy’s temper is a significant factor and an important plot point, though his subsequent anger management classes are disappointingly absent and instead only alluded to.

This leads to Billy’s downfall, which takes up seemingly 45 minutes of the movie; it wallows in its pity a lot for a movie that advertises itself as inspirational. But this is not necessarily uncalled for, as the film does spend the first 20 or so minutes acquainting the audience with Maureen, so it does feel like a true loss. It might just be too depressing for some moviegoers.

While the first half of the film might be overly sad, it presents the most interesting material in the second half as it deals with Billy overcoming his problems to find redemption in and out of the ring. Most of these scenes involve Billy’s coach, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). It’s here that I’m heavily reminded of the Rocky films. Billy’s fall into and return from despair over the death of a loved one is similar to Rocky’s depression in Rocky III, as is the new training he receives. Even many of Billy’s woes, like his financial issues, the heckling challenger, and his wife’s concern for his health, remind me of the Rocky series. In this case, it’s Rocky V (considered the worst of that franchise by many).

Despite the lack of originality, there are many positive things to mention, such as the performances. For example, in the limited time she is on screen, Rachel McAdams shows a great deal of chemistry with Jake Gyllenhaal. This, coupled with Gyllenhaal’s excellent acting, makes Maureen’s death and its aftermath all the more heartbreaking, and the most genuinely emotional part of the film. His depression is much rawer than anything in the Rocky movies. It should also be noted that the late James Horner, to whom the film is appropriately dedicated, brilliantly scored these scenes. The rest of scenes, especially the boxing scenes, are wonderfully shot; they make it clear just how violent the sport can get.

However, if Fuqua is hoping Southpaw is going to become a classic, I think he’s going to be disappointed. As for moviegoers, it largely depends how important an original plot is to you as a paying customer. The film is not a total carbon copy, but it does clearly take from previous boxing films; it has the grit of Raging Bull, but the heart of the Rocky films. Furthermore, its first half is compelling but exhausting, whereas the second half is more tedious and a little boring, until the climax. If that sounds all right to you, give it a try in theaters; it’s not half bad. Otherwise, wait until it’s On Demand.

RATING: 6.5 OUT OF 10 (AVERAGE)


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