In 1973, during a fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman, broadcaster Howard Cosell memorably shouted on the air: “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
Had Cosell been doing a running commentary of the Antoine Fuqua-directed Southpaw, then he might have shouted “Down goes Fuqua! Down goes Fuqua!” in the closing credits of a patently silly boxing film.
Southpaw is an insult to boxing fans. While films in the Rocky series became famous for their ridiculous premises and over-the-top fight scenes, they were always made with a wink and a nod, so that the viewer would suspend disbelief and just have fun watching it. Southpaw has a similarly ridiculous premise and several over-the-top fight scenes, but it’s produced in a way that attempts to be authentic. Instead, the film falls flat on its face.
Southpaw stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a light heavyweight boxer named Billy Hope. His performance is about the only positive takeaway from the film. Hope grew up as an orphan in New York in “the system” and eventually marries his childhood sweetheart and fellow orphan Maureen (played by Rachel McAdams). Hope becomes a wildly successful boxer, famous for falling behind early in fights and then coming from behind with his back against the wall. The couple have a child named Leila (Oona Laurence) and live a lavishly lifestyle in a mansion outside of Manhattan
After a comeback win early in the film, Hope is clearly beat up, unable to walk straight, and talking like a man with brain damage (although it seems like that’s the way he’s always talked). While Maureen wants Hope to take some time off, his posse led by promoter Jordan Mains (played by rap artist 50 Cent) are eager to see him fight again for millions of dollars as soon as possible.
Hope has a serious problem with anger management, and while his rage is key to his boxing success, it also leads to his downfall. When rival fighter Miguel Escobar (played by Miguel Gomez) hurls insults to the Hope family at a charity event, Billy instigates a brawl in which a member of his entourage accidentally fires a bullet that kills Maureen.
The tragic death sends Billy into a downward spiral where he loses all his money, his boxing career, and ultimately, custody of his daughter. Hope winds up connecting with a grizzled and long-forgotten trainer Tick Wills (played by Forest Whitaker) in an attempt to revive his career and get his life back on track.
With his performance, Gyllenhaal shows there’s little he can’t do. He is simply phenomenal playing a brain-dead rage-filled clueless old fighter. The problem is with the script and what Gyllenhaal is asked to do. Hope displays a rage that is almost comical. While we know he comes from the system, we really get very little insight into the anger that seemingly controls his life. Hope’s mistakes are so silly, yet consistent, that it’s hard to take them seriously. Hope’s fall to rock bottom is so sudden and unrealistic that it feels manipulative and disingenuous. As great as Gyllenhaal is, it doesn’t take long for his character to be an annoying watch.
For McAdams, the role feels a bit beneath her, particularly in light of her strong performance on True Detective this season. She plays a trashy-looking wise woman, and it just doesn’t fit. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know her character well enough before she’s out of the movie. A former Oscar-winner, Whitaker also feels severely under-utilized. 50 Cent may have generated some buzz for being in this film, but his part isn’t memorable. Southpaw has also received attention for debuting a new Eminem song, but it feels so forced into the final scene, it’s as if Fuqua didn’t know what to do with it.
All of this is part of the mess that is Southpaw, a movie with a name that doesn’t even make sense. After all, Hope is a right-handed, who only uses a left-handed stance in one fleeting moment that he supposedly learned in just a few weeks. It’s yet another unrealistic component of a film that tries to feel realistic.
Fuqua has always been one of the more unusual directors in Hollywood. While his crazy over-the-top premise worked with Olympus Has Fallen, he often walks a fine line. This time he falls on the wrong side of it. He could have had a fascinating psychological study of a rags-to-riches boxer harboring an inner rage. Instead, Fuqua seems more enamored with the celebrity around him. Whether it’s the HBO setting for a fight, or the opportunity to throw in a big name like McAdams, 50 Cent, or Eminem, Fuqua loves that all these talented people are in his film. He just doesn’t bring them all together for a movie that makes any sense.2, broadcaster Howard Cosell memorably shouted on the air: “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” Had Cosell been doing a runn, closed, draft, during a fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman, In 1973, Movie Review: Southpaw, post