Did the world really need another movie about a gritty white boxer from the wrong side of the tracks, who gets as good as he gives, whose struggles in the ring mirror his struggles in his personal life? Absolutely not. And yet the sheer, unblinking earnestness with which Southpaw tries to convince you that it does need to exist almost works. It sticks to the formula so closely that it almost becomes a mantra, an incantation. “He gets as good as he gives. He gets as good he gives. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up. Where’d you park the car Boo Boo forever and ever amen.”
How predictable is Southpaw? Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer named Billy “The Great” Hope. Billy Hope is married to his childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams), whom he met when he was 12, when they were both living in “a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage.” (Does Hell’s Kitchen still have orphanages? My ex-girlfriend used to live there and it was pretty nice). During one of Billy’s victories, announcer Roy Jones Jr. (playing himself) quips, “We still have Hope!” The soundtrack for Billy Hope’s Rocky-style training montage? Eminem.
Billy Hope is on top of the world until he gets into a scuffle with a title challenger. Their entourages pull their pistols, a shot rings out, and Billy Hope is suddenly a single father (all of this is in the trailer, by the way). He loses everything so fast it makes quadriplegic Hilary Swank signing over power of attorney with her teeth in Million Dollar Baby seem like subtle writing.
JUDGE: “Your wife is dead so we had to bulldoze your house. Oh, and we gave custody of your daughter to some wolves. Sorry, bro. (*gavel sound*)”
Tombstones are talked to, a grizzled mentor enters the picture (Forest Whitaker, playing a one-eyed trainer named Wills), someone shouts “it should’ve been you that died!”, and Jake Gyllenhaal has to win one last unwinnable fight for the proverbial Gipper against a fast-twitch ethnic type. It’s all there. Southpaw has so many layers of cheese it legally qualifies as a casserole.
It didn’t have to be this way. Early in the movie, Rachel McAdams’ character, the only one who’ll tell Billy the unvarnished truth, implores him to take a break, and says “You’re gonna be punch drunk in two years.”
Now that would’ve been an interesting twist on the boxing movie. There comes a point at which, no matter how tough you are, staying in the game is going to mess up your brain. How does a guy who only knows punching come to terms with doing something other than punching, for the sake of being able to enjoy the things he earned with his punching? That’s a hard question. Of course, CTE awareness hasn’t yet affected the way screenwriters approach boxing movies, and probably won’t until someone comes up with as good of an all-purpose metaphor as “hard knocks.” And so the solution to Billy’s problems in Southpaw, as in so many boxing movies, is HIT HARDER SLIP FASTER KEEP FIGHTING MORE METAPHORS!
When you hear someone is making a movie about a white boxer named Billy “The Great” Hope and his trainer One-Eyed Willy (I honestly didn’t put it together that Forest Whitaker was “One-Eyed Willy” until I wrote this review), you figure it’s going to be one of two things: 1) a parody/satire of the genre, or 2) terrible. Southpaw defies expectations by offering a third possibility: a movie so bold in its utter predictability that you start to rethink what it is about this story that makes us okay with watching it over and over again. Is it Jake Gyllenhaal? He certainly helps. I’m not sure there’s anyone else I’d rather watch squint through his eye putty and dribble bloody saliva down his chin. And if I’m going to have a grizzled old-timer tough-love me and shout metaphors while I thump the pads, you can’t do much better than Forest Whitaker. The unbreakable intensity of these two is the perfect match for this dopey, meathead script (written by Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter).