“Southpaw” Movie Review

     I’m curious as to why former “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Shield” scribe Kurt Sutter’s “Southpaw” script received any attention at all when it was being pitched in the first place.  Sure, having director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) attached doesn’t hurt and neither does the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal who is fresh off his tour de force performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler”.  Even a release by the Weinstein Company, who are known to gravitate towards  the kind of films that have awards potential, conjures possible images of a gritty, original tale of a boxer’s struggle to remain on top as his personal life unravels.  Unfortunately, none of this adds up to anything more than a “Rocky” redux, as the filmmakers struggle to tell a story that begins and ends on each and every one of the familiar tropes we’ve come to recognize as standard “Rocky” film storytelling.  In fact, when “Southpaw” reaches its second hour, the story becomes not only overly predictable, but you can actually guess which scenes will come next and how they will end.  Even worse, the dramatic portion of the story seems to have holes a mile wide, as things tend to happen with the audience left completely out of the loop.  This is by far Fuqua’s worst film, as the entire narrative is a mess and the acting, especially considering the talent involved, is subpar at best.

     Ironically, “Southpaw” might’ve actually achieved the edgy, streetwise story that was intended if the original star, Eminem, decided to play the lead role, rather than opting instead to provide part of the film’s soundtrack along with the late James Horner.  Gyllenhaal steps into the role of Light Heavyweight boxing Champion Billy Hope instead and does so with the obvious intention of creating a number of physical characteristics and mannerisms in order to make the character more of a challenge to play.  Aside from what had to be a painstaking physical transformation, Gyllenhaal definitely has the proper look and physique, he also wears a number of prosthetics on his face which give the appearance of a nose that has been hit too often and a left eye that probably won’t function properly over time.  This is all fine, of course, but there is nothing about this character that won’t constantly remind you of Rocky Balboa.  His upbringing in the streets.  His difficult, slow delivery of his words.  The wife who started out with him when they had nothing.  The fact he is referred to by the media as a “slugger” for his relentless style that seems to require him taking a boatload of punishment before he actually decides to throw meaningful punches.  Sound familiar yet?

     If anything, Sutter and Fuqua borrowed from the wrong “Rocky” movie since most of the familiar plot threads in “Southpaw” mimic the awful fifth installment.  50 Cent’s character, promoter Jordan Mains, is drawn in similar fashion to the same character in “Rocky 5” in which it becomes apparent that all promoters say they are there to look out for their fighters, but in the end will always choose the option that best suits their pocketbook, like Don King.  Here, Jordan decides Billy is no longer viable when he loses both his title and his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in about a two month timeframe.  Making matter worse, his millions are gone and he must sell his home and everything in it.  Like “Rocky 5”, this is the last thing you want to see again.  Is there anything more cliched then the story of a guy who had it all, loses everything, and then becomes determined to climb his way back to the top?  I’m sure you can guess how this will all go.

     Now living in a 300 square foot apartment and reeling from the loss of his wife and the fact his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), has been taken from him because of a drug and alcohol problem that curiously never plays out on screen, Billy walks into an old dated boxing gym run by a former trainer of a fighter whom he felt gave him the best fight (or something like that).  Enter Mickey, I mean, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who gives Billy a job cleaning the gym’s toilets and allows him to train there during the day.  You’ll immediately recall the scene in “Rocky 3” when Apollo brings Rocky to the gym of his former trainer and we are meant to realize the scene signifies a significant change to come in our hero. Of course, Tick has to be that reluctant trainer who wants nothing to do with training Billy for his big fight.  Because things have to move along; however, Fuqua allows Tick’s unwillingness to last for maybe five minutes of screen time, leaving any conflict there may have been devoid of even an ounce of real drama.  You also know this means a training montage or two as Billy trains for the bout that will give him redemption as the sounds of Eminem blare in the background for that extra level of motivation.  You can also bet there will be a plentiful supply of heavy and speed bag work coupled with lots of sit ups and verbal lashing from Tick.  Strangely enough, he does all of this in order to get his daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), back  since he’s told he has to have meaningful employment, as well as attend anger management classes.  All of this is nearly glossed over to a point where it seems as though nothing was more important to the filmmakers but getting to the training and boxing sequences which dominate the third act of the film.  The process in which Billy regains his daughter’s trust and ultimately gets her back through the court system is laughable and among some of the worst acted scenes in the film.

     Fuqua, who seems to be suffering from a slide similar to what M. Night Shyamalan experienced after “The Sixth Sense”, exploded onto the scene with his Academy Award winning “Training Day”, but has only managed a series of mediocre outings since.  “Southpaw” will only continue that trend, as it adds nothing to a very well established genre and borrows mightily from an age old film series rather than coming to the table with a fresh and original take.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the film’s final confrontation which is not only telegraphed at the very beginning of the film, but also includes the image of Billy’s daughter watching the fight on television, jumping up and down and cheering, just like Rocky’s kids did when he beat the odds and defeated Drago once upon a time in Russia.  Rocket science is not needed to figure out how “Southpaw” ends either.  GRADE: D