You know how people kept referring to Steve Jobs as an “Aaron Sorkin movie” despite the fact that Danny Boyle was the one who directed it? It's unfair, but understandable: Sorkin's voice is so distinctive that it seemed to be the guiding force for every piece of the movie, despite the fact that Boyle actually contributed a great deal. A similar effect is present in the boxing drama Southpaw, which was directed by Antoine Fuqua but feels so very much like the project of screenwriter Kurt Sutter.
Sutter is a talented writer, and also a frustrating one. He has built a career out of writing TV shows about hard, angry, violent men who operate on both sides of the law – he wrote for The Shield, and created Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner. Given his history, it's no surprise to discover that his first film screenplay is yet another testosterone-fueled tale of suffering and toughness. When Sutter is at his best, his stories attain a certain kind of brutal elegance (Sons of Anarchy was a modern riff on Hamlet, and some of the early seasons actually managed to make that work). When he's at his worst, his stories feel like – and there's really no other way to put this - overwrought macho bullshit. Unfortunately, Southpaw falls into the latter category way too often.
The film tells the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler), the World Light Heavyweight boxing champion. He lives in New York City with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, True Detective) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence, Orange is the New Black). They're a happy family, and most of the film's early scenes are devoted to showing just how happy they are – never a good sign. Sure enough, it doesn't take long for tragedy to strike: Billy gets into an argument with a young boxer named Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez, The Strain), and the increasingly violent scuffle that ensues leads to Maureen getting shot and killed. Suddenly, Billy's whole world has been shattered.
What Billy ought to be focusing on is his daughter, whose grief is just as potent and who needs her father more than ever. Unfortunately, the fighter is drowning in his own depression and his desire for revenge. Through a series of melodramatic events, Billy ends up losing custody of his daughter and losing his boxing license. All of this is merely a prologue to the film's “real” story, in which Billy makes an attempt to get back into the ring (with the help of a trainer played by Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) and get his daughter back.
Gyllenhaal has gotten increasingly good at losing himself in the roles he plays, and he dig into the role of this battered, mush-mouthed pugilist with intense commitment. It's a strong performance, but the work he does is consistently undermined by the film's insistence on adhering to weary boxing drama cliches (yes, the fact that Billy's last name is Hope is an intentional bit of heavy-handed symbolism – they might as well have named his opponent Miguel Despair). Almost every boxing scene here feels like a reheated version of something from Rocky or Million Dollar Baby or Raging Bull, and the moments of domestic drama are no fresher. After doing immensely stylish work on The Equalizer, Fuqua seems far less inspired here, failing to bring much visual energy to the film's big fight scenes.
Sons of Anarchy frequently demonstrated an overreliance on montages fueled by bombastic musical selections, and Southpaw often falls into the same trap. Every ten minutes or so, it's time for another sequence of Gyllenhaal looking tortured and hitting punching bags, as workout jams by Wiz Khalifa, Eminem and The Weeknd blare on the soundtrack. The score by James Horner (one of the composer's last efforts) manages to be a good deal subtler, relying more heavily on textures and sound design than most of the composer's other efforts (though still incorporating a handful of delicate melodies).
Southpaw would be bad enough if it were merely a conventional boxing drama (which it is), but it's made extra-irritating by Sutter and Fuqua's attempts to wring pathos out of every situation. A lot of Big Dramatic Things happen over the course of this movie, but few of them feel earned. The early developments feel like shock value for the sake of shock value, and the climactic scenes (in which Billy's young daughter watches in horror as her father is beaten to a pulp in the boxing ring) feel shamelessly manipulative even by the standards of this sort of thing. Gyllenhaal deserves props for giving Southpaw his all, but his performance is merely the silver lining of a overheated, predictable piece of Oscar bait.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2015