Southpaw (The Weinstein Company, R)

Southpaw 75It’s never quite as predictable as you’d think it would be.

 

 

 

 

Southpaw 500

Awareness of Southpaw is unusually high for a film of its sort, on account of star Jake Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation—he went from being thin and tendony in last year’s Nightcrawler (not to mention that being arguably his career-best performance) to being Tom-Hardy-in-The-Dark-Knight-Rises cut in Southpaw. But what’s this thing actually about, apart from Gyllenhaal’s miracle-of-nature six pack? Well, Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a bootstrapper boxing champion with a 40+-and-0 record, who’s known for being able to take a serious, bloody beating and still pull out a win late in a fight. Billy’s muse comes in the form of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who had a childhood untethered as Billy’s was, and together they have a clever young daughter named Leila (Oona Laurence). One of the pleasures of Southpaw is that it’s never quite as predictable as you’d think it would be, so with that in mind I think the above, admittedly thin synopsis is all you need: Southpaw is a boxing movie.

Of course we’ve seen crazy physical transformations in boxing movies before—Robert De Niro is the granddaddy of them all with his work in Raging Bull—but Southpaw seems to be as inspired by The Wrestler as it is by Raging Bull, if not more. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and writer Kurt Sutter (usually a TV writer, who’s worked on stuff like The Shield and Sons of Anarchy) won’t let you sit comfortably in the realm of a sports movie, even if their grabs at dramatic content often fall short. Southpaw begins strong but then gets boring for an alarmingly long chunk in the middle, only to regain interest toward the end. It’s like an Oreo, if you did like the chocolate cookie but not the white crème. The film’s problems are exacerbated by some pacing and credibility problems, but nothing’s ever enough to really hurt your enjoyment of the film all that much.

One nice surprise in the film comes in the way of Billy’s promoter, Jordan Mains, who is played by 50 Cent. Fiddy’s been popping up in movies for some time now, often simply as himself, but in Southpaw for the first time he proves that he’s actually a capable actor and deserving of a decent career. His Mains is basically a good guy, but as are many people he’s overly driven by money, which gets him (and, by extension, Billy) in trouble sometimes. And that leads me to another random pleasure of the film: while hardly a gangster movie, Southpaw does make handy use of some gangster movie tropes, such as the hero as a cocky young man who brought himself up from nothing, a moll-ish wife, and a business associate who’s constantly trying to pull the main guy in for one last big score.

In the end, Southpaw is never as good a film as its ambitions want it to be, but all the same these ambitions make it a better movie than it otherwise would have been. | Pete Timmermann

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