“Southpaw’s” Punches Are Too Predictable

Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is the only shining light in a film that relies too heavily on clichés.

It should come as no surprise that the strongest element in Southpaw is the consistently excellent Jake Gyllenhaal. Coming off a recent string of great films like David Ayer’s End of Watch and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, along with a fruitful relationship with director Denis Villeneuve that resulted in Enemy and Prisoners, Southpaw shines as an example of what this versatile and charismatic actor is capable of. Gyllenhaal’s inclusion makes Southpaw seem like an exciting new entry in his oeuvre, but the script succumbs to typical clichés (ala Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, Warrior) so frequently that no amount of great acting on his part can rescue it.

Southpaw is the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), an orphan who has risen through adversity to become a noted boxer. As he amasses more and more wealth because of his consistent performance and aggressive ring persona, he drifts apart from his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence). After passing up on a fighting deal to spend time with them, an accident at a fancy dinner rips his wife away from him for good. His downward spiral leaves him without a manager and custody of his daughter, and it’s up to retired trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to build Billy back up so that he can fight the cocky Columbian boxer at the heart of Billy’s problems.

Already, one can see that Southpaw doesn’t take any new steps in the oft-treaded boxing genre. Normally, one can forgive cliché if the film is compelling, but the screenplay here is so stale that there’s nothing to hold one’s interest. Director Antoine Fuqua does well with what he’s given and Gyllenhaal is wonderful as Billy, but they’re working on a playground that’s been trodden to death. The emotional beats are predictable and more than a bit overwrought, and scenes that were meant to be compelling just come off as intense yelling with little else behind them.

Most problematic, perhaps, is that Southpaw succumbs to the age old ‘dead woman’ trope. Maureen’s character is only in the film to die and kickstart Billy’s revenge story, and it’s the first example of infuriatingly lazy writing. McAdams, great as she is in the role, never has the time to grow into anything more substantial, and her character’s death is swift and obnoxious. It’s confusing because the story could have progressed along the same lines if Maureen was kept alive somehow.

As for the rest of the film, it’s pretty much what one expects, given the setup. Billy, having lost everything, tracks down Tick Wills to rebuild himself. It’s only through the development of traditional values that Billy is able to build himself up, regain custody of his daughter, and go on to fight his de facto rival, a confusing, underdeveloped character named Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

Story woes aside, Southpaw does a good job of being visually compelling and narratively plotted. It’s perhaps because it’s so formulaic that it feels like a film that spends just enough time moving from scene to scene. During boxing scenes, Fuqua’s camera is visceral and authentic when it matters, capturing punches with enough gravitas to place the audience smack-dab in the middle of the ring. Fuqua avoids the trappings of the shaky-cam, choosing instead to capture the fights with the same observational objectivity that pervades the rest of the film.

The acting ranges from excellent to serviceable, with Gyllenhaal providing an exceptionally strong performance that showcases his range. Southpaw isn’t as nuanced as Prisoners, so the weak points come about when Gyllenhaal is put into situations where the emotions are Hollywood heightened — pushed to such incredible heights that they devolve into screaming and sweeping music. Even during those weak points, however, Gyllenhaal is in top form, bringing with him the skill to portray a depth of feeling with simple gestures, like his voice cracking while speaking to his daughter. His casting is a great choice, and gives the audience an imperfect character whom we nevertheless cannot help but root for.

Alas, Southpaw cannot help but fall short of the heights it aspires to. Perhaps given a more original script, the acting and direction would coalesce into a much more engaging and interesting film, but what we’re left with is a story we’ve seen countless times before. While it’s true that it may be difficult to find a more compelling story in the boxing genre, the audience at least demands that one tries, and the problem is that it feels like Southpaw didn’t.

Had Gyllenhaal not been in it, it’s hard to imagine that this film would have gotten much attention. It’s not a blemish on his career, but it’s not anything remarkable either.

The DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment comes with a 20-minute behind-the-scenes video, which is, like the film, no more than what you’d expect.

RATING 5 / 10