How many times has this story been told? The one about the talented boxer who must overcome towering odds as he works his way to the title fight? Often enough I grew bored while watching “Southpaw.” Once I realized where the story was going, there was little to do but settle into my seat and count story beats.
Count them with me: Billy Hope is a boxer who rose from a New York City orphanage to light heavyweight champion of the world. After he’s injured defending his title, his wife, Maureen, urges him to quit while he still has his health. After being taunted into a brawl by an upstart boxer, tragedy strikes when Maureen is killed by a stray bullet during the melee.
Billy spirals into self-destructive behavior, losing his title, his fortune, and custody of his daughter. After reaching bottom, Billy seeks the help of Titus Wills, who trains young boxers at an inner-city gym. Titus agrees to take on Billy and gives him a job as a janitor. Slowly, the two men learn to trust each other, and Billy begins a journey toward accepting his wife’s death, reclaiming his daughter from social services, and finding glory in the ring.
The only reason to tell this story again is if you have a unique angle. Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) and writer Kurt Sutter do not, but they do have actor Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy, and that’s the difference between “Southpaw” being a dull retread and a showcase for a stellar actor. Gyllenhaal does exceptional work as the punch drunk boxer, all but carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders as he brings key emotions to each scene with the kind of natural ease that separates actors from movie stars. His ability to disappear into the role is just as remarkable. Even though it’s Gyllenhaal on the screen, I saw Billy, not the actor portraying him.
Make-up helped, as I can also recall only a few scenes in which Billy’s face didn’t look like a plate of very saucy spaghetti, but there’s no denying Gyllenhaal rises above the workman-like nature of “Southpaw” to deliver something more.
Otherwise, the film tried my patience, and not just because of the derivative storytelling. Fuqua’s directing feels too loose. His choice to use a handheld camera for most scenes works, given the gritty nature of the movie, but not his tendency to shoot his actors up close. Faces fill the screen in “Southpaw,” giving long stretches of the movie a claustrophobic feel rather than a cinematic one. One could argue this approach emhasizes character over setting, but it’s suffocating.
The dialogue doesn’t do the film any favors, either. Much of it appears to have been improvised, with the actors in a scene being given a destination but asked to find their own footing. The actors always get to where they needed to be, and the story always moves forward, but many scenes lack rhythm. Too many lines begin haltingly, with the actor seeming to search for his or her words, or contain superfluous details. Rachel Adams, who plays Maureen, certainly could have used a firmer script, unless her goal was to cram the word “baby” as many times as possible into each line.
And yet ...
When the big bout arrived, I leaned forward in my seat, as though I were sitting ringside. Fuqua tightened up his directing while filming this scene to deliver terrific first-person camerawork, as well as a memorable shot of Gyllenhaal in which the camera glides along the bottom of the ring and then moves up as Billy stands to face the closing round of the fight. The sound work and editing in this scene are also top notch. I only wish the filmmakers had employed the same skill and technique throughout the movie.
When I left the theater, I tweeted my thoughts, saying, “’Southpaw’ lands a lot of hard punches, but misses more than it hits as it rehashes every boxing movie archetype.” That, more than anything, is why the movie disappoints.
It does have Gyllenhaal, though, and that’s certainly something.
Two and a half stars out of four. Rated R for language and violence.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.