Movie Review: Southpaw

Jake Gyllenhaal’s committed performance and ripped body is not enough to distract you from the contrived emotionally manipulative Oscar bait that is Southpaw.

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the reigning Junior Middleweight Champion, seemingly has it all with an impressive career, a beautiful and loving wife (Rachel McAdams), an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence) and a lavish lifestyle. When tragedy strikes and his lifelong manager and friend (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) leaves him behind, Hope hits rock bottom and turns to an unlikely savior at a run-down local gym: Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a retired fighter and trainer to the city’s toughest amateur boxers. With his future riding on Tick’s guidance and tenacity, Billy enters the hardest battle of his life as he struggles with redemption and to win back the trust of those he loves. [TWC]

Jake G. is in a streak, hoping from one movie festival favorite to the next from Enemy to Nightcrawler to Everest. Along the way he made Southpaw, produced by Weinstein, who no doubt noticed the momentum in his career. The awards strategist said Gyllenhaal should get a nomination for Southpaw because of the Nightcrawler snub.

Jake G. does deserve praise here. Apart from getting in shape, he also accompanied it with details such as shaving his head, rumbling half sentences with a lowered voice, and embodying the short fused lug head that is his character.

The action is captured by the sharp cinematography and dynamic camera angles that make you a spectator and participant within and outside the ring. The musical score features the last work of James Horner who added an electronic vibe to his usual arrangement for a fitting soundtrack, reminding us of a talent gone too soon.

On the other hand, as the Weinstein logo has already indicated in the opening credits, Southpaw is an emotionally manipulative awards pandering movie. Everything else here is used to goad empathy and create drama worthy enough of an Oscar buzz.

The lead is Billy “The Great White” Hope, a cliched rough around the edges fighter whose name already tells you how this movie will turn out. The rest of the cast exist solely for his self-actualization. His wife and daughter is just there to cause suffering. The Magical Negro appears in the form of the straight-laced trainer. Fortunately for the movie, the cast gave good performances that elevated their one-dimensional roles. I don’t know how 50 Cent got this part because he’s definitely the exception. Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock would have been a perfect fit, but I’m guessing he costs more than Curtis Jackson.

They’re all thrown into a plot which is basically a seesawing rise and fall trajectory meant to bleed out the hope of out of Hope. We’re supposed to believe that no fighter has the skill to defeat a guy that operates on brute force and anger with 43 wins. He always has a chance for some reason until tragedy strikes. He casually forgets he still has a daughter who’s stuck in her room because her dad could fly off the handle any minute. Eventually she gets pissed and becomes a prop to stir drama whenever needed. It doesn’t end there as trainer Tick provide plenty of tough love. He doesn’t like training pro-boxers for no reason than to drop another stumbling block. If that’s not enough, there’s a tacked on tragic subplot.

The movie also promotes damaging stereotypes of the sport in an attempt to sustain the drama. Ten-time world boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya points out in The Hollywood Reporter, “Ironically, it is where many boxing films like Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and others have been so successful — in the scenes that take place outside of the ring and the gym — where Southpaw ultimately lapses into stereotype and does a disservice to its audience. Gunplay at black tie functions; fighters unleashing uncontrollable rages at home; promoters fixing fights. Has this type of behavior reared its head in the history of our sport? At times, unfortunately, yes. Is it common? Absolutely not.”

Towards the end Southpaw becomes a typical boxing flick about of course, not losing hope. The final showdown with a caricature villain does provide engaging action and doesn’t give a quick win. But at this point its more like a dangling handout snatched in a highlight moment, rather than a satisfying payback worthy of the spilled blood. As predicted, the movie wraps up with a melodramatic Hallmark movie worthy ending.

Southpaw wants to sell you a family-centric redemption story of a no-holds-barred fighter, but its obviously manufactured hope for the Academy. Whether the targeted white male judges will love it enough to give it a nomination is not confirmed, but it has already received some Oscar buzz for Gyllenhaal. However, many viewers are now smart enough to know when they’re handed a bait.

My Rating: 5/10

Alternative Movie Poster by Harry Movie Art

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