In this age of caped crusaders, billion dollar blockbusters, unnecessary sequels and batches of re-hashed remakes; it’s very rare to see a human story come out of Hollywood unless it’s Oscar time. Not only is it rare to see a human story, but a new and original one at that. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) presents a bold and bruising story about one man’s fall from heaven and rise from hell. Although Southpaw presents a compelling story and it proves to be one of the better films of 2015, it’s flawed delivery holds it back from being a classic.
Southpaw is a raw and rugged boxing drama about the self-destruction and rebirth of Lightweight Champion Billy Hope. Hope is an orphan that rose out of the gutter of New York City to become a champion athlete whose life falls apart after the death of his wife Maureen (Rachael McAdams). Billy must rebuild himself as a man, a fighter, and a father in order to save himself, his daughter and his career. Hope is savagely portrayed by leading man, Jake Gyllenhaal, in the follow-up to his strikingly conflicted role of Louis Bloom in the dark and daring crime drama Nightcrawler. The film has a wonderfully tragic and interesting twist to a typical boxing story, and the fight scenes and training sequences are shot magnificently.
Where Southpaw succeeds in its conception it often fails in its execution, with an obnoxious hip-hop soundtrack and original score that’s often used as a substitute for genuinely emotional expression. There’s also hammy improvisation full of repetitive language that attempts to patch up some of the script wrought with some buzz-killing clichés. Fuqua favors telling the audience what’s happening more often than showing them in a visual medium, which is largely due to uneven screenwriting and directing swayed more towards style than substance.
Kurt Sutter, known for creating Sons of Anarchy, has essentially written a sports movie for sports fan, not moviegoers, and his writing is held together with a tough guy aesthetic instead of dramatic impact. Seemingly, he’s more efficient at creating presentational stories for the screen rather than representational cinema in the sense it looks cool, but sometimes doesn’t mean much beyond that. Although the concept has many different aspects to it, it completely glosses over visually showing the story from any other character’s perspective beyond Billy Hope’s. This makes the story suffer as it becomes one-dimensional as opposed to multilayered via potential scenes from his daughter’s or his trainer’s perspective. There were also a few missed opportunities to allow characters come into their own. The script includes drunken rambling from Forest Whitaker’s character rather than him delivering inspirational wisdom like a true mentor would, and even the death of a minor character being talked about rather than shown onscreen. Sons of Anarchy suffered in large part from many of the same symptoms of sloppy writing, but it hasn’t stopped Sutter from finding an audience and commercial success.
Other than Billy Hope, none of the characters are fleshed out beyond a few catch phrases. And scenes fail to deliver a deeper dramatic impact by only showing the story through Billy’s eyes rather than tapping into support characters.
Southpaw is aesthetically wonderful other than a few shaky handy cam shots during a cemetery scene, and it proves Gyllenhaal as one of the premiere leading men of his generation. His performance is the lynchpin behind the entire movie and he is so utterly believable. Beyond his physical appearance, he literally disappears into his role.
The film shoots for the sentimentality of Rocky when it could’ve seriously benefitted from focusing on the perspective and dramatic impact of Raging Bull. Yet, despite the missed opportunities within the script, Southpaw delivers level a sincerity within every scene. Overall the story is very human, which is a great change of pace because a flawed story focused on humanity is always more powerful than invincible heroes of fantasy.