SOUTHPAW Uses Every Cliche in the Book – Movie Review
With the exception of Tom Hardy, is there any actor in this current crop as exciting as Jake Gyllenhaal? Starting with Duncan Jones’s 2011 sci-fi sleeper Source Code and peaking in last year’s Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has undergone a career transformation that would make Matthew McConaughey stop and say, “Alrighhhht.”
The actor, whose boyish voice betrays the 34-year-old man he is, has embraced darker subject matter, and turned himself into a rarity in Hollywood: a leading man who dives head first into his characters, delivering performances that are so much more than seeing Will Smith or Tom Cruise play themselves in different situations. Watching Gyllenhaal go from the greasiness of Nightcrawler to the mumbling, almost punch-drunk Billy “The Great” Hope in Southpaw is truly a sight to behold.
Somewhere in the cliche-filled Southpaw lies a great film. Parts of it are so elevated, so emotional, that the movie almost — almost — captures the rawness of David O’Russell’s excellent entry into the boxing genre, The Fighter. The issue with Southpaw, along with director Antoine Fuqua‘s suffocating framing, is its strict adherence to Kurt Sutter‘s script, which seems like he culled his favorite bits from the entire Rocky franchise; a championed fighter near the end of his career and health waning, loses his wife and fortune (Rocky V and Rocky Balboa), then is forced to get back into the ring to save not only himself, but his daughter to fight the man partially responsible for his wife’s death (shades of Rocky III all over the place) with the help of a grizzled, old school trainer (both Rocky and Million Dollar Baby). The only real difference between Rocky and Southpaw is the dour, morose tone, even substituting Bill Condon’s Gonna Fly Now training montage song for a gritty Eminem song.
Southpaw isn’t a bad movie. It really isn’t. The fighting is entertaining and brutal to the point it’s hard to tell if Gyllenhaal is really taking some of those punches, and the acting, especially Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker, is off-the-charts fantastic. Even Rachel McAdams, currently carrying the mediocre Season 2 of True Detective with Colin Farrell, has a somewhat meaty role as “the wife.”
The thing with Southpaw is every time it ventures into risky territory, like Billy’s drug use after the death of his wife, the film rushes back to the safety of its cliches. Billy is never even shown taking drugs; the only indicator he’s even high is when the other characters say so. Otherwise, Billy is so borderline punch-drunk it’s impossible to tell.
Beneath every boxing cliche in the known universe, there really is a great movie lurking in Southpaw. If it didn’t care so much about those cliches, that great movie might have shown through. As it stands, Southpaw is a disappointing entry in a well-worn movie genre.