Real life boxing sucks. You pay $99.95 to HBO and you get to watch two wife-abusing assholes hug each other for 12 rounds. (Note to boxers: try hugging your wife and punching your opponent.) Movie boxing is so much better. Punches land. Blood flows. Two weary warriors stagger into the 12th round, struggling to land the knockout blow that will win the respect of their peers, restore their lost wealth, and win back their family. And of course, there is the training montage.
So here is this brand new boxing movie, and it stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Not, say, Channing Tatum or Terry Crews or Chris Hemsworth or any of a hundred actors that look more like boxers. Nope. Jake Gyllenhaal. And the weird thing is, he turns in a totally believable performance as light heavyweight champ Billy Hope. He mumbles his way through the movie like a cross between a punch-drunk version of rapper Everlast and Sylvester Stallone circa the first Rocky movie. He’s ripped enough to be plausible as a boxer, and five minutes into the movie the you forget that it’s goofball Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko (2001) and that Bubble Boy movie (2001).
No, Gyllenhaal isn’t the problem with Southpaw. Kurt Sutter is the problem with Southpaw. Who? Kurt Sutter is the guy who wrote this thing. Or rather, the guy who copy and pasted scenes from Rocky 1, Rocky 3 and Season 4 of The Wire. That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad – it’s a genre movie, so there is bound to be a certain amount of overlap with other movies in the same genre. But problem two – director Antoine Fuqua – exacerbates the predictability of the script by failing to do anything new within the conventions of the genre. The big boxing finale is good, but it doesn’t do anything that Stallone didn’t do better decades ago. Also – Billy HOPE? Seriously? And the slick manager character is a disaster, which brings us to problem three – Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
There are plenty of rappers who can act. Who can forget Ice Cube in Boyz in the Hood (1991)? Or Ice T in Law & Order SVU? (PS, congratulations on Coco’s pregnancy.) Or Ludacris, or Tupac, or even Eminem. Unlike those guys, and despite a decade-long acting career, 50 Cent turns in an awful performance in this movie. Attired in slick retro suits, he looks more like a kid playing dress-up than a boxing manager. And Sutter’s script doesn’t help him any – was he fixing fights? Was he stealing money? Did anyone think through this script?
On the up side, Forest Whitaker is in this movie too, as the Master Yoda/Burgess Meredith/Zen Boxer father figure who trains Billy Hope. Yes, the requisite training scenes are the best part of Southpaw – only because the actors take what could have been a very hack scene and turned it into something special. Rachel McAdams is also decent as the wife, though Scarlett Johansson did a much more natural Tri-State area accent in Don Jon (2013).
So see the movie at your own risk. There are a few good boxing scenes, one good training scene, and probably a career-best performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. The problem is all the plot you have to wade through to get there.