Despite featuring a muscle-bound Jake Gyllenhaal, a strong, tailor-made score, and scenes of heart-rending tension, Antoine Fuqua presents a film that relies on generic clichés to carry out a nonsensical plot. Although the film struggles with this tired storyline, it is unfair to refer to it as a failure, since Southpaw stands out through the unexpectedly powerful acting of the film’s cast.
From Cinderella Man to Raging Bull all the way to the ill-reviewed Real Steel, the “boxing movie” genre is vast and varied. A depression-era Russell Crowe, a self-destructive Robert De Niro and the futuristic world of Hugh Jackman and robotic martial arts clearly show the diversity that this film theme is capable of. However, most boxing films (and arguably a large number of sports films) are homogenous at their core. In an observation of the 2010 film, The Fighter, one can see that it is an extremely quick and basic plot of hard downfall followed by fast triumph. Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, is a moderately successful fighter who gives into the negative influence of his family and comes close to losing out on his career forever. After 30 minutes of mulling it over, he learns to balance his own will and the relationship with his pernicious mother and brother to quickly win his own boxing title. All in all, The Fighter is a simple film characterized by powerful acting. Christian Bale’s incredible portrayal of Micky’s cocaine-addicted half-brother, Dicky Eklund, won him a well-deserved Oscar. Southpaw can be similarly characterized by its simple plot and strong performances, although it certainly features much more significant flaws.
The boxing film often serves as a vehicle for powerful performances. Watching Jon Voight lie dead after his title fight in The Champ or seeing Hilary Swank snap her neck as she finally gets her title shot brought a tear to the eye of every viewer. Witnessing Gyllenhaal’s descent into near suicidal misery and rage following the death of his wife reflects what can be done with a plot structure inherently simple at its core: a focus on the human condition in situations of extreme emotion. Southpaw reflects an unbelievably realistic human struggle, placing Gyllenhaal in a tragic scenario within a linear plotline to focus on the emotion of his character, Billy Hope. Young actress Oona Laurence, who portrays his daughter Leila, matches Gyllenhaal’s intensity. Their tense relationship following the death of her mother is the force that drives the entire progression of the film.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is memorable, yet most doubt that his efforts will bring him critical acclaim. The film itself almost reaches the level of other greats in the “boxing genre,” but unnecessary stereotypes and over-simplified character decisions leave the work on shaky ground. Furthermore, the plot progresses with unsettling speed: Hope seems to lose his fortune, his daughter, and all friends and professional connections in a matter of weeks and is reducing to working as a night janitor. In the following 2-3 months he learns a new style of boxing, wins one amateur fight, and is given another shot at the title against his antagonist, the vicious contender for his former belt. This rival ultimately presents himself as a one-dimensional villain, instead of a more interesting, multi-faceted character who realistically should’ve been guilt-ridden for his role in the accidental killing of Gyllenhaal’s wife.
Although I left the theater somewhat disappointed by the predictable plot of Southpaw, the acting stood out amongst the clichéd wreckage. Gyllenhaal’s recent career has begun to shape him into a powerful actor in leading roles. Nightcrawler is certainly an improvement Prince of Persia, and this most recent opportunity to showcase his abilities as an actor will certainly take him much further in the future.
The boxing movie as a genre is important because it follows a basic human struggle for success, an individual-based look into human dealings with failure and triumph on both the physical and emotional levels. The boxing movie will continue to spotlight actors with talent who need to prove themselves. Perhaps upcoming films such as Creed, the story of Apollo Creed’s son as a young boxer, played by Michael B. Jordan, will give another lead actor and supporting cast a stepping stone to reflect true art within a simply-structured form.