A Boxing Movie in Name Only: “Southpaw”

By Robert Ecksel on July 27, 2015
A Boxing Movie in Name Only: “Southpaw”
Rocky-esque in scope, Grand Guinol by design, the boxers are animals in an abattoir.

Billy mumbles. He bangs into walls. He looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He looks like he was in a car crash…

“Southpaw” opened nationwide over the weekend. Produced by The Weinstein Company and directed by Anton Fuqua, the film has the hallmarks of a contender. Jake Gyllenhal stars as former light heavyweight champion Billy Hope. Rachel McAdams, hot off the small screen in HBO’s True Detective, plays Billy’s sexy wife Maureen. The always sympathetic Forest Whitaker is Tick Wills, the philosopher/prince boxing trainer. And 50 Cent portrays Jordan Mains, a Don King clone who wants Billy’s money.

Joining the main characters, for varying lengths of time, are Jim Lampley, Roy Jones, Victor Ortiz, and Lou DiBella. They add verisimilitude, but the plot is incoherent.

“Southpaw” is less intellectual than primal, and more primal than any boxing match. Every punch lands in every round with thudding regularity. The fights are Rocky-esque in scope, Grand Guinol by design. The boxers are animals in an abattoir.

Billy Hope is unbeaten at 43-0. He’s the champ but he’s a mess. Muscles bulging, veins popping, tattoos undulating across his body—Billy gets battered from pillar to post as he successfully defends his title. Maureen is ringside. She is Billy’s good luck charm. She covers her face with her hands (ala Vickie LaMotta in “Raging Bull”) and watches the fight through her fingers. She wants Billy to quit. Maureen is sick of boxing. She is sick of 50 Cent.

Maureen tells Billy, “You’re going to be punch drunk in two years if you keep fighting.”

The magic of cinema turns two years into two seconds. Billy mumbles. He bangs into walls. He looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He looks like he was in a car crash. But Maureen is drop-dead gorgeous. Their mansion says old money. Their daughter is as cute as a button, almost good enough to eat. Maureen and Billy, even with his inarticulate soliloquies, even with their low expectations, are on top of their little world.

“I didn’t really see it as a boxing movie,” Fuqua told the Los Angeles Times. “I saw it about a man who’s grieving and has to learn to be a father.”

Grief hits “Southpaw” like gale force wind. In a script crammed with improbabilities, the good life ends at a charity event. A loudmouthed up-and-comer calls Billy a bum. Billy takes the bait. Punches are thrown. A bullet is fired. Maureen dies in Billy’s arms.

The next shot is of a cemetery. It’s that kind of a boxing movie.

After Maureen’s death, Billy loses his money. He loses his mansion. He loses the title. He loses his daughter.

Melodramatically, Billy hits rock bottom with a clunk.

Only boxing can save Billy from the primordial sludge. He gets a comeback fight, which he loses. Billy clocks a referee. He is suspended.

Billy is despondent. He drinks. He does drugs. He crashes his car into a tree like Mike Tyson. Fact and fiction intertwine as cliché tops cliché and Billy connects with his new trainer. Forest Whitaker as Tick Wills adds gravitas to the proceedings. He’s a relief from Billy’s histrionics. But the ghost of Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby” hovers over the portrayal. That isn’t unimportant, but Forest Whitaker isn’t to blame.

There are only so many ways to play a stock character.

Fuqua told Vanity Fair, “I grew up watching ‘Rocky.’ I still love that movie, the original one. ‘Raging Bull,’ of course. ‘The Set-Up.’ ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight.’ And then there were some other classics that dealt with the boxing world, backstage stuff, like one Bogart was in. But I didn’t really find one that made me feel like I was at a fight. I wanted to feel like I’m at a fight and I’m watching people get punched and blood fly and sweat fly. I’m watching fighters stumble back from the ring, exhausted. I’m watching fighters sit on that stool and thinking, ‘Do I have the guts to get back up, to go take more punishment?’ I wanted to really feel that. So I decided I was going to film it like it was a real fight.”

“Southpaw” lacks insight and commercially viability. It is a boxing movie in name only. The main character could have been anyone. That he is a boxer is incidental. Billy goes from riches to rags back to riches again, the oldest story in the book. “Southpaw” plucks the heartstrings, ladies bring your hankies, but it’s cheap sentimentality, paint-by-numbers filmmaking at its most regressive. There are boxing elements in the film, but the boxing, like the film, is a cartoon on steroids.

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Southpaw Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams Movie HD

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  1. KB 03:15pm, 07/29/2015

    Hmm. didn’t this guy Jake play in Brokeback Mountain”? He sucked in that one too.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:10pm, 07/27/2015

    The two greatest fight films of all time are “On The Waterfront” and “The Quiet Man” with only one flashback fight scene in the latter. Which reminds me….in order to make it work all fight scenes should be full contact….period….otherwise don’t do them.

  3. Eric 12:06pm, 07/27/2015

    KB…teehee. Rocky Balboa made Rocky Graziano look like a member of Mensa. I know the fight scenes were a bit much, Rocky throwing uppercuts from the floor, flooring Creed with a wild haymaker, but overall I think it was a great movie. Didn’t care for the sequels that followed especially Rocky 5, but I think Rocky was superb.

  4. kb 11:50am, 07/27/2015

    Geez Eric, you can do better

    Arguably and in my humble opinion, Rocky is the very worse one on the list given the manner in which it plays into the stereotype of boxers being illiterate thugs on the verge of dementia. Pure schmaltz.

  5. FrankinDallas 10:07am, 07/27/2015

    well at least Jake’s sister Maggie wasn’t in the movie. dang, she’s ugly.

  6. Eric 09:44am, 07/27/2015

    My favorite boxing flicks

    1. Rocky
    2. Hard Times *Bronson is a street fighter but close enuff
    3. Requiem For A Heavyweight * Anthony Quinn version
    4. Raging Bull
    5. Somebody Up There Likes Me
    6. Cinderella Man
    7. The Harder They Fall

  7. KB 09:07am, 07/27/2015

    Holy shit, Robert. Thanks for spoiling my anticipated thrills.

  8. Eric 08:51am, 07/27/2015

    The trailer was terrible. Haven’t seen a movie at the theaters since 2008. Looks like I will keep my streak alive.

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