Jack Gyllenhaal is an exceptional character actor and he rarely stars in a bad film. There are some exceptions like Prince of Persia, but the actor’s back catalogue of work is impressive and diverse.
From Donnie Darko, through Brokeback Mountain, to End of Watch and Prisoners, Gyllenhaal has shown his talents in a variety of roles and genres, and he has yet to be type cast. Last year he starred in the New Hollywood throwback piece Nightcrawler, where he lost a considerable amount of weight to play nihilistic insomniac Lou Bloom, and this year he bulked up to star in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw.
Boxing Movie Stereotypes
Unfortunately there’s not a great deal to say about Southpaw. Written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner) and piloted by Fuqua, the film plays out exactly as expected. There’s little imagination in the writing, the story exists within a rigid three-act structure, and although Gyllenhaal does well in the central role, he’s not given much to play with.
There’s a ‘theme’ song written by Eminem, a distinctly tribal setting similar to SOA, and a brooding working class undercurrent to the entire story.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, an undefeated boxer at the top of his game, who is happy to take a beating in pursuit of another win. He fights with little nuance, and he batters his opponents with tenacity and blunt force. His pretty wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) begs him to take a break, and his young daughter (Oona Laurence) is terrified by his increasingly bloodied face, and his violent outbursts.
Billy does have one challenger, an outspoken younger fighter who calls him out at a press conference. Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is leaner, and has lots to gain by fighting Billy, but Billy’s wife advises him to be calm, and to let go of the anger driving his decision-making. The conflict is set up, and the rest of the story exists to push these two men into the ring, and force Billy to accept his narrative obligations.
Rags to Riches (and Back Again)
At the start of Southpaw, Billy Hope is a man with everything. He has a loving family, a large suburban house, and a career with an enviable upwards trajectory – HBO offers him a thirty million dollar deal for three televised fights. But things fall apart, and they do so quickly.
Billy suddenly finds himself alone, and struggling to deal with his new reality. The fawning fans, the adoring crowds, and the lucrative sports deals become a distant memory as Billy attempts to piece his life back together. Tragedy propels him forwards, and Billy embarks on the hero’s journey.
There’s even a mentor figure, who Billy finds just in time to halt his downward spiral. Titus ‘Tick’ Willis (Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog), a man who believes in the beauty of boxing as a sport, and who instills in Billy a new perspective, one that considers the potential for living a quieter and more mindful life.
Southpaw’s Unimaginative Plot Structure
You’d be right to think this all sounds formulaic. There’s little nuance to the screenplay or the story told, and for the most part it punches with blunt force. But if you accept that this is a boxing film, a reboot of ‘80s genre movies like Rocky rather than a character piece like Raging Bull, then you’ll have a good time (if you’ll excuse the simplistic language).
Because that’s what Southpaw is – it’s a story told for the fun of it. In many ways Gyllenhaal is wasted in this role, but he does lend a degree of gravitas to an otherwise pop/pulp story. In his hands Billy becomes more than the sum of his stereotypical parts, and there’s a convincing rapport between him and Whitaker’s ‘Tick.’
It’s a film full of popular culture tropes and references, and it never quite feels like it exists in a realist world. There’s the inevitable conflict towards the end, and there’s the obligatory montage training sequence, but somehow Southpaw still manages to be a film in its own right, rather than an homage to a film making style.
It is What it Is
Southpaw doesn’t punch above its weight, it doesn’t add anything new or particularly interesting to the boxing/sports genre, but it does capture the sport itself with impressive cinematography, and excellent action direction. But it never escapes, or rises above its influences. There’s more than a hint of Sons of Anarchy in the writing, and if you’ve seen a Fuqua film before then you’re more than prepared for the tone, and the cinematic language in Southpaw.
For the most part the performances are good, but the problem with the film is its simplistic writing and narrative choices. It feels like Sutter chose to watch boxing movies, rather than spend time with real boxers.