Nothing says made-in-Hollywood quite like a good ol’ boxing movie. The combination of sweat, tears and applause, glory, setbacks and turnaround practically has the traditional three-act story arc written by itself. And it’s in the ring where the American dream of winning fame and fortune by giving, risking it all is most vividly brought to life. So it should come as no surprise that with Southpaw, we get yet another one about a fighter who first loses everything, then picks himself up, and despite tremendous hardship, gets back on top again. You could hear the cheers and inspirational music from here.
Herein lie probably both the draw of the movie and its own undoing. people who enjoy watching something rough but not too demanding, dramatic but following an expectable trajectory, can sit back, let the punches fly, and get massaged in all the familiar places, in exactly the right order. Nothing about the technical details or the performances here is particularly terrible as to offend those just looking for the joyous rush of a comeback story. But boy does this one get dreadfully conventional. Every turn the plot takes, from the drunken, self-destructive behavior of the fresh ex-champion, the custody case lost and reversed, the spiritual guidance from a mentor figure, down to the montage we all know so well, where the loser transforms himself into heroic shape in front of our eyes, feels intensely unoriginal. Every loss, every triumph both predictable and unavoidable. Altogether that makes for a superficially charged but intellectually flat experience. laying the lightweight boxer, Gyllenhaal has the physicality down and nails most of the outward aspects of the performance. The labor, the ache, the murderous rage, you can buy all that. But he did not overcome an inherent air of civility, this boyish sweetness to him as a screen presence, betrayed now and again by his voice or posture, so selling him as this tough cookie who “grew up in the system” is still a bit of a stretch.
As far as rousing crowd-pleasers go, Southpaw more or less gets the job done. Just don’t go in expecting subtlety, depth, tact – stuff that makes up a true emotional K.O.
Southpaw | Directed by Antoine Fuqua with Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Rachel McAdams. Starts August 20