In a flash of tragedy, the champion boxer who grew up tough on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen loses everything and has to fight to get his life back – SOUTHPAW’s plot comes straight from the golden age of Hollywood; it’s the sentimentality of THE CHAMP fused with the blood, the physicality and (some of) the sweariness of RAGING BULL. It’s aiming for the feat pulled off a few years ago by WARRIOR, but SOUTHPAW doesn’t have anything like Tom Hardy’s character defying expectations in the non-fighty bits, leaving this as a ‘same old same old’ story punctuated by tears, punching bags in frustration, training montages, inspiring speeches and ‘the big fight’. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s the difference between good and great – or, if you like, a pretender and a champion.
From writer Kurt Sutter (TV’s The Shield, and Sons Of Anarchy) and director Antoine Fuqua (who has still never bettered 2001’s excellent TRAINING DAY), SOUTHPAW relentlessly hits the genre beats; it’s predictable to a fault, but then offers no real contribution of it’s own. Plus, because it’s sticking so rigidly to the well worn trail, key dramatic moments start to feel either unbelievable or unearned, or both (see: the courtroom custody scene).
Everything else is fine: Jake Gyllenhaal has again physically transformed to inhabit prizefighter Billy Hope, and he mines the character for all its dramatic worth - all popping veins and strained muscle (safe to say we can all be grateful that Eminem dropped out). Forest Whitaker comfortably wears the ‘no nonsense mentor/trainer’ gloves, while Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson surprises, finally getting a role he can be proud of in the slippery promoter. Rachel McAdams sets up the film, and young Oona Laurence runs the gauntlet of tortured emotions as Billy’s traumatised daughter.
Being perhaps the most popular movie sport,
it must be hard to find new and effective ways to film boxing, but director of
photography Mauro Fiore finds a few new surprises, and the late James Horner’s
score delivers some characteristically fine cues.
It’s a shame that all SOUTHPAW’s talent and achievements are bound by a glass-jawed script. If Sutter and Fuqua had something – anything – new to say, we would remember their film very differently, or at least remember it.
SOUTHPAW is released August 20 in Australia and New Zealand.