"Hope cannot possibly win."
So when the trailer for Southpaw came out I was immediately told to not watch it as it broke out with a sudden Terminator/Amazing Spider-Man 2 syndrome and gave away half of the film. I managed to avoid it for a long time until just a few weeks ago, as I sat down to watch ‘Jurassic World’, right there, in all of its cinema screen glory, they played the full, spoiler filled trailer and it fulfilled that promise exactly. I mean why would they even play that trailer anyway, it’s not as if that’s related to ‘Jurassic World’, they could have played trailers for ‘Rogue Nation’ or ‘Ant-Man’ or literally anything. But I digress, Southpaw has finally arrived.
Lightweight boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is riding the highs of career peak level success. However his life takes a dark and turbulent direction as he is challenged by a cocksure and arrogant rival. When personal tragedy strikes he finds himself fighting battles both in an out of the ring.
I was very excited for this film for a number of reasons, firstly I was hoping for another stunning performance from Gyllenhaal to continue that winning streak he has right now (‘Zodiac’, ‘Prisoners’ ‘Nightcrawler’, the list goes on). Secondly, it involves a dramatic physical transformation, made more prominent by his recent weightloss for ‘Nightcrawler’ and subsequent weightgain for this are usually Oscar friendly developments that may finally gain him an overdue nomination.
Long story short then, most of my excitement for ‘Southpaw’ stems from what Gyllenhaal may deliver and as far as that goes, then wow does he deliver yet another astonishing performance. It’s wildly different to anything he’s done in the past, both physically and mentally. His portrayal of a boxer is an unflinching one, not bothering to dodge the long term or short term effects of the sport. However, as good as he is inside the ring and with emotional turmoil, for some reason I never quite bought the whole street kid aspect of it. Maybe it’s because the writing of the character is a bit inconsistent as one minute he seems smart and tactical but will later make poorly thought out and irrational decisions.
It’s not just in character decisions that the writing seems to be lagging a bit. With a fairly standard and rather clichéd story and conspicuously obdurate plot developments it really is hard to imagine ‘Southpaw’ being regarded as anything above average without its main star. Furthermore the entire spectrum of the usual boxing movie tropes are used frequently. If it had a 70s rock soundtrack and less cursing it might be confused as a Rocky reboot (which incidentally is a terrible idea, and no ‘Creed’ is not a reboot, it’s a spinoff/continuation). As I previously said the writing is worryingly inconsistent throughout and fails to add any depth to the supporting characters.
Though Rachel McAdams and Forrest Whitaker are fine in their roles, there’s little for them to do beyond acting as plot points and motives for Gyllenhaal. Most of the time they remain fairly shallow objects that never really develop their own personalities beyond giving advice and becoming incentives for the story to move in a certain way. Though Whitaker is able to avoid being substandard by producing a much more understated performance it only limits the damage rather than increases the strength.
The directing is also fine and I can’t really fault it, but at the same time there’s not much to stand out and leave an impression. De Niro’s performance in ‘Raging Bull’ may be a masterclass but it is just a single piece of the many things that make the film a masterpiece. The same cannot be said here sadly.
‘Southpaw’ may have faults but in a way this only highlights how remarkable Gyllenhaal is, his acting elevates the film to a higher level and as a result he continues to prove his ability as a serious modern actor.