Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
2015. Rated R, 124 minutes.
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson
Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is not just any boxer. He’s the undefeated and undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. We meet him in the midst of his latest title defense. He is losing badly and bleeding profusely. Like champions do, he digs deep and comes up with a knockout. Due to the punishment he takes in this fight, and apparently every fight he’s ever had, his beloved wife Maureen (McAdams), encourages him to retire or at least take a break from getting his brains beat in. He has no such intentions, especially when the number one contender to his throne, Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Gomez), has been talking a bunch of smack, right to his face. At a charity event both fighters are attending, a fight breaks out between them and their respective goons. A couple guns are produced, a shot gets fired, and Maureen is left dead. A distraught Billy drinks heavily and is going broke due to his not fighting. He contemplates and eventually attempts suicide. Since the authorities frown on such behavior, the state takes custody of his daughter Leila (Laurence). Billy trying to do everything he can to get his little girl and his career back ensues.
The best part of Southpaw is easily the relationship between Billy and Leila. Their scenes together are heartfelt for both good and bad reasons. The dynamics of a father and daughter who both adore and need each other are handled very well. In movies, these types of relationships work best when we can buy the kid in the role. It’s not a groundbreaking performance by any means, but young Oona Laurence is believable enough in her role that we really feel for her. We may feel even more for Billy thanks to another in what’s become a long line of excellent portrayals by Jake Gyllenhaal. His scenes with Laurence that I said are heartfelt are that because the pain is so clearly evident on his face we can’t help feeling for the guy.
Whenever we move away from the father-daughter stuff, Southpaw is shaky, at best. It clearly wants to be a new millennial Rocky, lifting a plethora of elements from that franchise. Without the flair or inherent nostalgia of Creed. it comes off as a lame rehash. Villain Escobar obviously worships at the altar of Clubber Lang, and even recycles some of his dialogue. I was kinda expecting him to say “I pity the fool” every time he appeared. Billy’s trainer Tick (Whitaker) is a combination of Rocky’s Mickey and Eddie, Morgan Freeman's character from Million Dollar Baby. Forest Whitaker is fantastic in the role, so it’s forgivable, but still obvious. Promoter Jordan Mains (50 Cent) gets to be our secondary villain as he exploits Billy and openly chases the money wherever it goes. His favorite saying is “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.” However, the combination of the writing and 50’s chill portrayal render him a guy we wouldn’t mind having a beer with. He’s a weasel, but not quite slimy. There are no indications he does anything underhanded. We can never generate enough hatred for to give the movie what it desires from him. Even my beloved father-daughter relationship is essentially a riff on Rocky and Adrian, complete with a scene of Billy telling Leila that she’s smarter than him with her acknowledging the same. And of course, Billy is very Rocky-esque in that boxing is everything he knows, and Leila is everything he loves. In light of all this, even the title of the film feels like an homage to Rocky. The legendary Balboa is indeed left-handed as that film makes a point of showing us. Billy is not. Calling this Southpaw is really a bit baffling because it only pertains to roughly fifteen seconds of screen time, ten to set it up somewhere late in the second act, and five to execute it later on.
Southpaw works hard to make Billy the new Rocky in other ways, as well. In and of itself, this is not the problem, as sports movies have done this for the last forty years. The issue is Billy’s status as an underdog doesn’t feel at all authentic. What he’s accomplished by the start of the film doesn’t jive with what he goes through during its runtime. Not only is he the champion at the start, but he’s been that for quite some time. Later, when he starts working with Tick we’re to believe the concept of defense is completely foreign to him. To have a rough and tumble, brawling style, or just not being very good defensively is one thing, to have seemingly never heard of blocking or ducking a punch is too absurd to buy. Fighters who willingly absorb punishment rarely become champions. If they do, they don’t last long in that spot. They most certainly don’t make it forty-plus fights without suffering a loss. That may just be the fact that I’ve been a boxing fan all my life rearing its pugilistic head. Then again, no one else in this movie blocks a punch, so I guess it’s possible. The other common sense part of it is that OF COURSE he has a legitimate shot at beating Escobar. Billy might be the older, slower fighter, but with age comes invaluable experience fighting through adversity in and out the ring. It’s also a big edge to have presumably become a better fighter by the time of the climactic bout by introducing himself to actually defending himself while in the ring. Because of this, we never fear for Billy’s life the way we do when Rocky is facing off against Lang, Ivan Drago, and even Apollo Creed.
Without making Billy a believable underdog, and reliance on stock characters, Southpaw merely treads water whenever matters pertaining to boxing are concerned. We’re watching a guy who reached the pinnacle of his profession learning things he should have learned the first time he walked into a gym. The performances of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker keeps it from drowning altogether. By comparison, the film swims like a fish when its attentions turn to Billy and Leila. The juxtaposition of these elements gives the film an uneven watch, vacillating between greatness and mediocrity for its entire runtime. It is still a pretty good movie, but far misses the mark it’s going for.