One of the most highly anticipated films of the year, Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw arrives with Jake Gyllenhaal bulked up and ready to spar, but alas — Kurt Sutter’s cliché-ridden screenplay adds up to little more than shadow boxing.
The tone is established right away as soon as we learn Gyllenhaal’s character’s name — Billy “the Great” Hope. An orphan who grew up in the foster care system in New York, he emerged a successful boxer with anger issues, 43 wins and no defeats under his belt. Living in a mansion with his beautiful and equally tough wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and adorable daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), he’s got the world on a string. But after a particularly brutal bout, Maureen convinces him to retire while he’s still on top to avoid becoming just another punch-drunk fighter.
Billy and Maureen are leaving an awards ceremony when they encounter brash, up-and-coming boxer Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) who trash-talks Billy into a rage. A conflict ensues, gunshots ring out and…well, without giving away any spoilers, you can easily figure out the rest of the story. Billy loses everything and he sinks into an alcoholic delirium until he finally hits rock bottom. Redemption begins at the modest Brooklyn gym of trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), where Billy finds the courage to put his life back together.
The storyline is just this side of Mystery Science Theater-ready. Backstories and plot developments are delivered in oversized chunks. Every character is an easy-to-understand type, and the dialogue they’re forced to deliver lacks the sophisticated subtlety of…oh, say any Steven Seagal movie.
McAdams projects far too much elegance as Maureen, who, according to the story, is also a “tough kid who grew up in Hell’s kitchen.” Whitaker is trying to do interesting work as Tick, but is likewise buried under a mountain of cliché. And, of course, all the entourage members are depicted as the usual mixture of opportunistic hangers-on and “faithful friends.”
Gyllenhaal, whose dedication to his role is obvious, oddly chooses to play Billy as almost simple-minded, as if the punch-drunkenness has already set in. Even when his character starts to crawl back to recovery, his demeanor never changes. Ironically, it’s young Laurence who delivers the most range as his adoring daughter.
Fuqua and director of photography Mauro Fiore have made the decision to film the project in “shaky-cam,” intended to convey urgency but mostly it’s just annoying. The fight sequences, while dazzlingly edited by John Refoua, tend to go on about ten minutes too long and become enervating.
It’s a pity — Gyllenhaal was clearly going for his Raging Bull here, but Southpaw is as trite a boxing drama as there is.
Southpaw opens Friday in cinemas across Los Angeles.