It is painful to say, but this next statement rings true more often than not. If you’ve seen one boxing movie, you’ve seen them all. Thanks to the likes of “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” from the past and “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter” of the present, they are their own formula, cliche, and sub-genre of sports movies. If you’ve seen one rags-to-riches triumph or riches-to-rags-back-to-riches redemption, you’ve seen them all. If you’ve heard one trash talking villain or one sage mentor/trainer/coach jaw on their own, you’ve heard them all. If you’ve seen one smoothly-edited training montage that leads to the big, loud and predictable ending fight, you’ve seen them all.
Sorry about the repetition, but that all has to be said and this list of tropes could keep growing. Granted, boxing flicks are readily entertaining thanks to that tried-and-true formula. They are, no doubt, exciting crowdpleasers that are easy to root for, but the variety and creativity are scarce to find. “Southpaw,” starring a ripped-and-raging Jake Gyllenhaal, as entertaining as it tries to be, sadly brings nothing new to the table. This is disposable repetition at its best and worst.
Gyllenhaal plays Billy “The Great” Hope, a rough New York kid from the wrong side of the tracks (where have we seen that before?) who took up boxing as a way out of the violent environment and foster homes of his youth. He has ascended to be the current and undefeated light heavyweight champion of the world. Billy is married to his childhood sweatheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and they share a pre-teen daughter Leila (Broadway performer Oona Laurence). When his most recent victory takes a physical toll on him, Maureen urges Billy to retire at the top of his game (where have we seen that before?).
Billy’s slick and opportunist promoter and manager (where have we seen that before?) Jordan Mains, played with financial irony by bankrupt rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, thinks otherwise and tries to squeeze one more lucrative three-fight contract out of Billy. Mains is also playing the other side by representing Billy’s next big contender in his weight class, the cocky Columbian boxer “Magic” Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez from TV’s “The Strain”). On the heels of that last fight, the hot-headed Escobar tries to goad the hot-headed Billy into a title shot (where have we seen that before?).
The two men and their security posses jaw enough at a black-tie charity function that it boils over to a fisticuffs. In the melee, idiots from both camps pull handguns and a stray misfired gunshot rings out stopping the fight. Billy finds Maureen fatally wounded and she dies right there in his arms on the hotel lobby floor, in a stunning twist ruined by every trailer for the film. Maureen’s death and subsequent drug abuse bottoms Billy out. In a dramatic and quick fall from grace, Billy can’t live high-on-the-hog anymore and loses everything (where have we seen that before?) He loses his title and undefeated record in a hastily-made fight set up by Mains. He headbutts a referee at that fight and loses his boxing license. Worst of all, his poor financial and parenting choices cost him his home, lifestyle, and daughter Leila when Billy is deemed unfit and she is taken into the care of child services.
To climb back up from rock bottom, Billy turns to Titus “Tick” Willis, played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (channeling a good bit of “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” with his skewed practicality) and typecast for his ptosis-stricken left eye tailor-made to represent an old boxing injury. Tick is a grizzled former boxer-turned-trainer (where have we seen that before?) who runs his own boxing dungeon of a gym open to the troubled youth (where have we seen that before?) of the Sugar Hill/Washington Heights. By trying to go clean and get back the only thing he knows how to do well, Billy hopes to earn his respectability and his daughter back by fighting in the ring successfully again. Gee, I wonder who he’ll come back and fight. Gee, I wonder how it all turns out.
Jake Gyllenhaal is hit-and-miss in the tatted-up lead role. He’s the reason to come to see “Southpaw.” Physically, the “Nightcrawler” star clearly put himself through intense training to look and play the part in the gym and between the ropes. The fight scenes, sprayed with his blood and sweat, do have their inherent intensity and thrill. Emotionally, Gyllenhaal has always been an actor who can flip the switch from showing quiet, puppy-dog forlornness to spewing an unconstrained volcanic rage in a matter of a millisecond. That combination is played unevenly and comes across as De Niro Lite between the mumbling and the rants. We’ve seen that routine emulated over and over, especially in other sports and boxing films. Even the trailer features his daughter saying “so predictable” to Jake’s character. He’s the right man for this kind of role. He’s just not given much to do outside of take a punch and scream.
Furthering that sense of predictability, you saw and read the many parenthetical notes in that plot review. “Southpaw” repeats much of every common plot device you’ve already seen in better and superior boxing films. Outside of the twist of killing off Billy’s wife early in the film to start the predictable spiral and ensuing redemption, director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Equalizer”) and screenwriter Kurt Sutter (creator of “Sons of Anarchy”) offer nothing new to chew on and challenge us. The fight cinematography has some flash but is unremarkable. We’ve seen the same slo-mo and POV shot selection mix before. Bigger than that, the aforementioned trailer gives everything away, especially for those who were drawn in by that pulsating and awesome Eminem track “Phenomenal” from the preview. You’ll be waiting a good 90+ minutes until you get to thug out and hear it during the prerequisite cliche training montage, diverting from one of the late James Horner’s final musical scores (a forgettable one at that). It’s too little too late by that point.
Some of what is present in “Southpaw” works to entertain like a typical, culminating sports film. There’s an upward trajectory and a hero you root for, but the substance and periphery is plain, uninteresting, familiar, and unexceptional. Heck, even the title really doesn’t make sense because the main character isn’t a lefty and only goes to the southpaw stance for one punch in the whole movie. Guess which punch too. That should have been the first inkling, not the last.
Lesson #1: Grow up and ignore trash talk— Billy Hope, you’re a professional boxer making millions of dollars. Go ahead and let your fists do the talking, but do it in the ring. Be smarter than that and be the bigger and more confident person. Let the other guy waste his time trash talking. You go prove your worth when it counts after the bell rings. Apparently Billy has never learned one of the cardinal lessons from the “Back to the Future” series. Never dignify name-calling. When you do, you make the mistake of showing the other guy that you’re weak enough to fall for that and come out an equal loser.
Lesson #2: When you seek violence, you get violence— Piggy-backing off of Lesson #1, when you look for the brash and violent way to settle things, that’s what you tend to get. If you pick a fight, you’ll get a fight. This is especially true when you mix gun violence in the equation. Nothing good comes from it and even with a little bit of change, Billy never really learns this lesson either in the film. He gets a money-grabbing chance to get back to the big time and still hasn’t shaken his anger management and violent reactionary issues. We’re supposed to chalk that up to the violent profession and sport apparently.
Lesson #3: Don’t trust Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson with your money and live within your means– The rapper recently declared bankruptcy in real life and his role as the businessman in “Southpaw” brings unintentional laughs. Still, would it kill any professional athlete to live within their means? Here’s a list of 20 prominent athletes who went broke. Damn, fellas, pay your taxes. There are hundreds more and “Southpaw” brings out that “Rocky V” plot device of the decadence ending after years of mismanaged money. Can these guys ever have even a small ounce of intelligent saving and planning in mind, especially in sports where an injury could end the gravy train in an instant? Are there not enough smart people available to hire to manage finances? You are making generation-changing money. Make it last and make it count. Be smart and maybe say no to the fifth or sixth sports car that you never drive. How about sticking with one?
Lesson #4: Being responsible for your actions, all of them— Billy easily comes across as that clueless and uneducated punch drunk fighter who handles nothing on his own about his life. He depends on his wife to parent and his shady circle to manage his finances and career. Billy only knows how to fight. His pugilistic indifference and careless attitude made him a lackluster boxer with no defensive skill and caused the brawl that led to his wife’s death. It really is all his fault and he barely accepts that fact, that is until Leila is taken from him. After Maureen’s death, Billy has to take on all of that responsibility (you know, the basic stuff like bills and parenting that the rest of us do every day) and crumbles before shaping some of that up.