DIR: Antoine Fuqua • WRI: Kurt Sutter • PRO: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Antoine Fuqua, David Ranes, Alan Riche, Peter Riche, Ning Ye • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Derek R. Hill • MUS: James Horner • DES: James D. Bissell • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Oona Laurence, Rita Ora
Antoine Fuqua’s recent entry into the boxing canon Southpaw is visceral yet manipulative. It is a generic rags-to-riches story which includes a little girl (Laurence) whose sole purpose in the narrative is to try her best to make the audience weep. The film is steeped in melodrama.
Southpaw originated as vehicle for rapper Eminem who instead just provides the soundtrack. The lead role of Billy Hope (that’s no joke) was taken on by Jake Gyllenhaal. This proves a blessing for the film. Gyllenhaal’s performance as Billy Hope seems like Jake La Motta light. However, he adds a bumbling pathos to an innately clichéd character with an already well-worn path to follow down the film’s over-familiar plot.
Not only does Gyllenhaal borrow from Robert De Niro’s classic performance, Southpaw and its director borrows from almost every boxing film ever made, most glaringly from Raging Bull (1980). Fuqua lifts shots from a film which was so uniquely conceived 35 years previously. Genre tropes are hard to avoid in this kind of film but Southpaw indulges in them without a glimmer of self-consciousness.
Some fine acting by Gyllenhaal, McAdams as his wife and Forest Whitaker as his coach make this film watchable, but such is Fuqua’s appetite for the mundane, none of them can flourish. Gyllenhaal’s transformation is something to behold. The male body is something that has recently come to the forefront of Irish culture as the vast majority gaze toward the form of Conor McGregor in sexualised awe and appreciation. Gyllenhaal’s transformation from night crawler to buff brawler is commendable and raises more comparisons with De Niro’s ‘method’ acting in Raging Bull.
Fuqua not only sexualises his lead but also his counterpart McAdams. He does so for the sake of it. McAdams’ performance already oozes sexual confidence and social awareness. She is the brains of the operation. Fuqua ruins the elegance of her performance by exploiting her with his camera, like she is starring in a 50 Cent or Eminem music video. It is a misguided attempt at gender politics, another staple of the boxing genre.
Leger Grindon posits in his seminal essay Body and Soul: The Structure of the Boxing Genre ‘The boxer’s career unfolds in an exclusively male world which retards the fighter’s emotional development and intensifies his difference from women’. He goes on to say ‘In the romance, the female protagonist is associated with mainstream culture and the family’. All Billy knows is how to box. The distance from women is not as intense because of his relationship with his wife and daughter. However, it is them that teach him everything else he needs to know about life. McAdam’s character repeats the importance of home and family like it is a mantra, her philosophies are echoed by her daughter towards the end of the narrative.
Grindon continues ‘Whereas the society of the boxer is defined not simply as male, but also as undeveloped and apart’. Billy Hope cannot conform to the rules of society. It is a tragic flaw for him, but especially for those closest to him. He constantly questions societal boundaries, lashing out in anger if he cannot transcend him, flipping tables if he cannot find the words he needs to express his feelings.
Causal filmgoers will probably enjoy this film. However, there are much better examples of this genre. Anyone who has seen the best ones will not enjoy such a clichéd affair. What must be stressed is do not, under any circumstances, watch the trailer for this film. It gives away too much plot points.
15A (See IFCO for details)