Southpaw throws a flurry of clichéd punches
Southpaw was not what I expected. I believed and hoped that I was walking into a Rocky type fable, or maybe a modern day Raging Bull. There have been a few strong entries into the sport fighting genre in recent years, including Rocky Balboa (2006), Warrior (2011), and hopefully the upcoming Creed (2015). Sure, there are twice as many sub-par entries between the aforementioned titles, but with a superb cast headlined by limitless Jake Gyllenhaal and under the consistently solid (if not above average) direction of Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), Southpaw seemed destined to be the strong sports drama entry that comes along every handful of years. Alas, it is not. The sure bets going into the final product still shine—Gyllenhaal is superb and Fuqua’s direction is effective—but the story is formulaic and surprisingly, subtly, unnervingly, kinda racist.
Southpaw spends a considerable amount of time begging, pleading, and working for the audience to cheer for Junior Middleweight boxing champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal), the while male underdog of the story. Yes, that is correct, the protagonist has Hope as a last name and “The Great” as a moniker, and yet the film still pulls out all the stops to get us on his side. (SPOILER ALERT) Pulling out all the stops includes the sudden death of his beautiful white wife, Maureen Hope (Rachel McAdams), the loss of his child to social services, constant reminders that Billy was an orphan and is still fairly illiterate, and a rival hispanic boxer who not only cheats but also insults Mrs. Hope before AND after her death. I beg the question—can’t a rival fighter just be a terrific fighter? Does he/she have to be evil? And with Billy Hope as one of only 2-3 white characters in the film, including his daughter and wife, and the one we’re supposed to be cheering for, the stereotyping and ethnic portrayals of the characters surrounding him don’t do the film any favors.
I will admit one thing worked well—the melodrama was effective. Despite knowing full well the stereotypes and predictable plot points, I was still drawn into cheering Hope on in the most dire moments and feeling sad at the orchestrated tragedy clichés. The cinematography by super duper action DP Mauro Fiore (Training Day, Avatar, Real Steel) is excellent, as is the music featuring original songs by Eminem. Southpaw also features a powerful central performance by Gyllenhaal, who is quickly becoming a true chameleon of the silver screen, and a good enough supporting performance from Forest Whitaker as, take a guess, yes, a weary semi-retired trainer now working at a small gym. But a script penned by TV writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy, The Shield) suffers from rushing the story beats and sticking to formula. I haven’t seen The Champ (1931) or the remake of the same name in 1979, but I’ve been told Southpaw is basically another remake. It’s not like I was praising Southpaw’s originality anyway, but at least I know now that these racist undertones and genre clichés have enjoyed a long history in movies. Sigh. Fingers are crossed for Creed.
Southpaw opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, July 24th.