The Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) directed boxing drama “Southpaw” (opening in theaters nationwide July 24) is the film equivalent of an anemic fighter whose every punch misses its mark and is fighting way out of its weight class.
In short: Reckless boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) must refocus himself after a tragic accident nearly takes everything away from him. Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris and 50 Cent co-star. (watch the trailer)
Film editing is a funny thing. It’s obvious when it’s brilliant (“Argo,” “Social Network”) — and it’s grossly apparent when poor editing leaves a movie a disjointed, choppy mess. “Southpaw” is absolutely the latter: this movie is a whiplash-inducing mess of bad storytelling.
First of all, “Southpaw” is an unfocused movie – it takes entirely too long for the arch of this story to even take any sort of shape. This movie just wanders aimlessly for pretty much the entire first act before an over-the-top tragedy forces “Southpaw” into finally telling something resembling a character arch. But even when the story stakes are crystal clear – Hope risks losing his daughter to the foster care system – this undisciplined melodrama half-heartedly goes through the motions of a predictable sports drama. The end result: it’s difficult to care about Billy Hope or his situation.
And lazy storytelling is absolutely the reason “Southpaw” doesn’t work – and this film’s abuse of unearned, ineffective montages is embarrassing. This movie, at times, relies on montages completely as a tool of shoving the story forward — again, because this is an unfocused film. At one point, the movie makes an attempt to show Billy Hope humble himself by taking a menial job and living a very basic life — but it does this by flashing quick scenes of Hope’s apartment and his minimum wage job. Then the matter of Hope’s forced humility is abandoned altogether – as if the filmmakers said “OK, we showed Hope moving some boxing equipment around for two quick shots – that’s more than enough to convey Billy is humble, right?” No, it’s not — nor is it effective to flash a few quick, obligatory boxing training or “everything Hope owns is being auctioned off” montages. These lazy montages shove the story forward, but without any grace or heart.
Oh, and nothing about this cluttered melodrama is subtle — and like all melodrama, “Southpaw” confuses big, operatic swings of narrative direction for “dramatic” storytelling. It’s not enough that Billy Hope loses his fortune, he must also lose his wife in a crazy accident. And he loses custody of his kid. And he’s banned from boxing (until the movie deems its convenient for his suspension to prematurely end.) And – just for good measure – there’s some random b-plot where a neighborhood kid dies (off-screen) — but because of aforementioned lazy storytelling issues, the audience never gets to know the kid, so his abrupt death makes no real emotional impact.
About the only two things “Southpaw” does right: the ensemble cast delivers a serviceable set of performances and this is a textured and gritty depiction of boxing. No one performance standout as particularly good – although if anyone deserves credit, it is Gyllenhaal – Billy Hope does have a clear character transformation. “Southpaw” certainly does not glamorize boxing, from the methodical pre-fight preparation routines to the clear physical toll the sport takes on Billy Hope as he shuffles through the movie.
Final verdict: “Southpaw” is an editing debacle — which results in a jarring sequence of dramatic events … and the totality of its storytelling missteps results in an ineffective drama lacking heart or emotional impact.
“Southpaw” opens in theaters nationwide July 24. This boxing drama is rated R for language throughout, and some violence.