What’s in a name? Aside from being one of Shakespeare’s famous lines, that phrase is also probably what Kurt Sutter was thinking when he picked the title of “Southpaw” for his boxing script. The boxing term is widely known but holds almost no relevance in this cliché, under developed story that brings little out of all involved.
The title refers to the nickname that is given to fighters who use a left-hand dominant stance and, harkening back to cinema’s most famous southpaw fighter, Rocky Balboa, generates the image of an underdog. Practically none of that applies to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope, who is a right-handed fighter and only goes southpaw for one climactic punch in the entire film. It seems that Sutter, and director Antoine Fuqua, just watched a bunch of boxing movies and took what they thought worked and applied it to this film without worrying how it would fit.
First, you have the opponent, an up and comer named Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who tries and stir Hope’s emotions to get him to fight like Mr. T in “Rocky III” and who does some dirty things in the ring. Despite all that, it’s hard actually to hate Escobar.
When one of his crew is responsible for the death of Hope’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), Escobar seems legitimately upset about how everything happened. He is then later seen ringside at Hope’s next fight and seems concerned with how far the former champ has fallen. So sure, he can be a douche, but he’s not a strong antagonist.
You could argue the bigger villain is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s manager, who tries to be a Don King like figure, but he is such a wishy-washy character that he doesn’t matter either.
The scrappy trainer, played by Forest Whitaker, is also present, but more out of necessity and convenience than anything else. Hope needed a new trainer to straighten him out and be a guiding hand, and this hard-nosed, straight-laced weary veteran was the one to do it. Except the strict rules he set essentially became forgotten, a light tap of direction is all Gyllenhaal’s character needs to get his trainwreck of a life together, and his whole southpaw strategy is a complete macguffin.
All of these problems rest primarily with Sutter, but Fuqua is not without sin either. Primarily with the mess that is the final rounds of the climatic fight. Fuqua presents the film’s fights pretty clean and straightforward; no tricks with the camera, just letting the action speak for itself. Then in the final fight, as things start to get intense, he changes the style to include shaky POV shots that he never used in any of the fights previously. It’s quite a jarring switch. Then, when Hope lands the triumphant uppercut in the last round, Fuqua uses slow motion; another one-time thing, not to mention the most clichéd trick in the book. It’s hard not to roll your eyes when you see it play out on screen.
In reality, the boxing stuff was secondary for Sutter and Fuqua when telling this story, but when it is as lackluster as what they muster here, it makes it hard for the real core of the story to rise above it.
It’s a real shame to, because the emotional arc of the story of Hope learning how to better himself and his relationship with his daughter after the death of his wife was actually quite good. The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Oona Laurence, who plays his young daughter, are great. In truth, they are the only defendable part of this movie.
That does include, as hard as it may be to believe, Gyllenhaal’s performance. His work is not bad, but after giving brilliant turns in films like “Nightcrawler” and “Prisoners” over the last few years, despite the intensity of the character, it’s all pretty routine for him.
The goal of “Southpaw” was not to be a boxing movie, but if they had spent a little more time on those boxing elements to make sure they didn’t detract from everything else going on in the film, they wouldn’t have had a bad boxing movie.