Southpaw (dir. Antoine Fuqua)

Posted: August 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Southpaw”, for much of its running time, works really well as an examination of profound grief and guilt.  The film is so mired in sadness and hopelessness, centered around a character who is a slave to his background despite having monetarily risen up from it by using his personality weaknesses as strengths in his profession, that I was briefly reminded of the great film about grief “21 Grams” (2003).  “Southpaw” never reaches the heights of that particularly great film, but for the first two acts I thought that maybe “Southpaw” would be eschewing the traditional boxing movie in favor of being a deeper character study of the ineloquently named Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Then the third act happens, and the film shifts into autopilot by giving us a finale that every boxing movie has (the training montage, the big fight, etc) and that finale feels wholly unsatisfying given what is actually unresolved, and how seemingly tidy the conflicts of the film are supposedly rectified.

Gyllenhaal, who was robbed of the Oscar nomination and win he deserved last year for “Nightcrawler”, plays Hope really well by committing to the character.  Hope is not a bad guy, but he is clearly of a below-average level intellect and, after a childhood raised in orphanages, has a lot of rage.  He got lucky, in a way, by finding boxing, which required little intellect and allowed Hope to channel his rage into beating others to a pulp and making millions of dollars for it.  Hope is man who found upward mobility by using his lower class flaws in a way the upper classes wanted to see.  Hope also gets hit a lot, as being angry and not very bright means he has no defense in the ring, and he pretty much just hits and GETS hit as hard as he can til the other guy falls down.

The saving grace of Hope is his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams, doing a good job of playing someone with little class but much intelligence in a way that feels organic and not wholly fictitious), who looks after him and loves him deeply.  They also have a daughter (Oona Laurence) who is taking after her mother’s in the brains department but seems devoid of the lower class sensibilities of her parents, having been raise din their sports-garnered affluence.  Maureen is sometimes at odds with Hope’s sleazy boxing promoter, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), in deciding how Hope’s career goes, especially after Maureen convinces Hope to take some time off even though Jordan would like to get Hope back into the ring to fight a hungry, showboating fighter who challenged Hope at his last press conference, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, then you know that Miguel challenges Hope at an event, Hope lets his anger get the best of him and attacks Miguel, and then a scuffle happens wherein one of Miguel’s entourage fires a gun and kills Maureen.  This leads to Hope spiraling into depression, briefly attempting to murder Miguel (not finding him), and attempting suicide.  This all leads to Hope having his daughter taken away from him and then, after Jordan convinces Hope to fight again even though Hope is not ready (Hope’s lack of financial acumen in the wake of his wife’s death also means he’s hemorrhaging money), Hope injures a referee and is suspended from professional boxing for a year.

For a while, the movie is very good as it shows us Hope’s convincing fall and mental breakdown.  The weight of his grief is so powerful that the film almost becomes painful to watch from the sadness oozing out of the screen.  Director Antoine Fuqua and Gyllenhaal do a phenomenal job by balancing Gyllenhaal’s raw performance with an unforgiving gray-washed color scheme to create a world without color or happiness or, well, hope. Hope loses his house, his wife, his daughter, his money, most of his friends, and it’s all shown in a way that feels realistic and not some Job-like piling on.

Then the movie begins, sometime in the late second act, of becoming a by-the-numbers boxing movie in which a wise trainer (this time Forest Whitaker) tells the boxer exactly what is wrong with him (the boxer) and how to fix it, and all of the problems of the film are solved in a montage and a big ol’ boxing match at the end.

Except that it’s NOT all solved.  Whether Hope beats Miguel in a boxing match or not is neither revenge for nor justice for the death of his wife.  Even if Miguel loses, the losing boxer in a big Title match still walks off with a lot of money. The murderer goes unpunished, and Maureen is still dead.  Hope may walk away from the match no longer poor, and he may have his daughter back, but in that sense he’s right back where he started just after Maureen died, minus the mansion.  Sure, Hope may have learned to humble himself, check his anger a bit, and has grown as a person, but his wife is still dead, the murderer is unpunished, his sleazy promoter is still making money, the boxer who covered up for the murderer and instigated the confrontation leading to the murder walks away with more money in his pocket regardless and, well, the ending is a sham of a happy ending.

The film was written by Kurt Sutter, who is known for writing TV series with a hard edge featuring brutish but well developed male characters, like “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”. I’ve never watched a single episode of either of those shows, but their general critical acclaim is known to me. If I assume Sutter is a good writer, and the first 80 minutes of “Southpaw” seem to point to this as a fact, then how does one account for the film going on autopilot for the last third and leaving us with a sham of a happy ending?  Why does the film so cowardly cop out when it was doing so well?  The ending could have been happy, or devastatingly downbeat, either one could have worked.  Instead, the film decided to go the paint-by-numbers route, and what could have been a very good film becomes a merely pretty good film.

Fuqua has shown himself to be a good director for the most part. I enjoyed his little-seen Jaime Foxx film “Bait” (2000), and of course “Training Day” (2001) was his breakout film. “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2010) was a film that had the balls to drown in misery and not cop out with a happy ending.  That film was brave in a way that “Southpaw” is not.  Granted, “Southpaw” is much better than Fuqua’s worst films, like “King Arthur” (2004) and the execrable “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013), but it’s lacking in ways that Fuqua normally doesn’t allow his films to lack.

“Southpaw” is still more a lot more good than bad. B.

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