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Movie Curiosities: Southpaw

Time to start playing some catch-up.

Southpaw comes to us from writer Kurt Sutter, best known as the creator of a little TV show called “Sons of Anarchy”. Sutter also exec produces alongside the Weinstein Brothers, who should need no introduction. The director is Antoine Fuqua, an incredibly versatile filmmaker who’s given us awards-worthy films (Training Day), explosive crowd-pleasers (Olympus Has Fallen), and outright flops (King Arthur). Anchoring the superb cast is Jake Gyllenhaal, coming off his universally acclaimed Oscar snub as the star of Nightcrawler.

(Side note: The score is credited to the late, great James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory.)

So much talent went into this project, and it turned out being my least favorite kind of movie to review. Not because it’s bad, but because it leaves me with pretty much nothing to write about.

It’s a very straightforward story about Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), an undefeated heavyweight boxer with an overpowering rage and a disturbing capacity for taking punches to the face. He’s also an orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, growing up in the foster care system along with many friends who are still with him now. One of them is his lovely wife (Maureen, played by Rachel McAdams), and the two of them have an adorable daughter (Leila, played by Oona Laurence).

So Billy’s a millionaire, he’s world-famous, he has good people working for him, and he has a wonderful loving family. There’s a bit of anxiety about how much longer he can keep on taking head injuries, but that’s about it. Everything’s good.

And then… well, the trailer’s already spoiled this point and it’s kinda the catalyst for the whole plot, so fuck it. To make a long story short, things go sideways when Billy’s rival (Miguel “Magic” Escobar, played by Miguel Gomez) picks a fight. Shots ring out and Maureen is killed in the crossfire.

This leads Billy into a downward spiral, losing his career, custody of his daughter (which really hurts, because now she’s in the system just like her parents were), his entire fortune, and pretty much everything he owns. Billy eventually lands at a gym run by the wise yet snarky Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker). From there, Billy rebuilds himself into a better fighter and a better father.

That is seriously the entire movie.

With that basic description of the premise, you have everything there is to know about the plot. Seriously, everything. The plot is perfectly happy to glide along on rails in such a way that everything plays out exactly as expected. There isn’t even the slightest attempt at bringing anything new to the table.

That said, at least the movie looks fine. Handheld camera is used without being overdone, the color palette is gritty without being oppressively dark, and the visuals are otherwise perfectly fine. The sound design is pretty good as well. And of course the fight scenes are phenomenal, with POV shots and slow-mo used in just the right way to help make the fights more immersive. Yet the vast majority of the boxing scenes are presented in a more straightforward fashion, content to let the camera sit back and watch unblinkingly as two characters beat the piss out of each other. The boxing matches are lit up clear as day (not to mention displayed on a massive theater screen for us), which makes it so much easier for us to see every drop of sweat and blood as the fighters grow more fatigued. Yet all of the action seems real and authentic, like the actors really are taking and delivering actual blows. Great stuff.

A lot of that is of course due to the cast, which is incredible. Gyllenhaal’s performance isn’t exactly the best I’ve ever seen from him, but that’s not saying much and he still turns in fantastic work here. Forest Whitaker breathes life into a tired cliche of a character the way only he could. Naomie Harris takes a completely disposable role and makes it memorable. Even Rachel McAdams — who normally has the screen presence of wet cardboard — lights up the screen.

Oona Laurence also proves to be a very capable young talent, though her character was a bit problematic. I wasn’t fond of how Leila’s character was so inconsistent throughout the film, but she’s a young girl who just lost her mother and her dad’s a proven fuckup, and it’s not like the film can take more time to focus on how she’s coping with all of this in depth. So I guess I can let that slide.

Then we have our antagonists. 50 Cent shows a surprising amount of charisma here, almost to the film’s detriment. I could swear the film was trying to sell his character as an amoral bastard who goes where money leads him, but it’s hard for me to fault the guy for any of the decisions he made. As for Escobar, the guy’s a straight-up cardboard cutout. A two-dimensional dickhead made solely for our main character to clean his clock.

Of course, the real antagonist of this film is also our protagonist. Because the guy is his own worst enemy, like that’s never been done before in any boxing film. The movie also hints at certain messages about anger, grief, family, fame, and other assorted topics, but nothing ever comes together into anything profound or interesting. Never mind coherent or novel. As a direct result, the movie feels inconsequential, which is the absolute last thing I’d hope to expect from this cast and crew.

Southpaw is superbly acted and brilliantly directed, but it’s all in the service of a paint-by-numbers story. The film isn’t smart enough or bold enough to be a solid awards contender, and the action (awesome though it is) doesn’t get nearly enough focus to qualify as an adrenaline-fueled popcorn flick. It’s a disappointment, but only because it feels like there was so much potential left somehow untapped.

It has all the ingredients of a great film, yet it somehow only coalesced into a good film. It’s therefore tough for me to give the film a recommendation, especially when so many other promising films are coming up in the next few weeks. But I expect Southpaw will be on its way to second-run theaters before very long, and that would seem like a good time to give it a try. I suppose there’s also a chance that this could get some awards buzz, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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