By James Hancock July 23rd, 2015
Director Antoine Fuqua has thrown a heavy upper cut with his latest film Southpaw, unfortunately he misses the chin of his opponent, us, by a few inches. This is a tough movie to review, or in boxing terminology, a tough fight to call. Southpaw is not at all a movie that inspires contempt so I am unable to skewer the movie gleefully with a snarky negative review. On the other hand, the movie falls well short of boxing movie greatness and I am not about to compare it favorably with a movie like David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), a movie which I absolutely loved and saw four times in the theater. This is a movie where the cast does everything in their power to do the heavy lifting and create a moving experience for the audience but Jake Gyllenhaal and his punch-drunk countenance and shredded abs can carry the movie only so far before the lackluster, unimaginative screenplay causes the movie to stumble. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter has seemingly borrowed every cliche and predictable plot twist he can from other movies without ever managing to write an original scene that shows us something new. Rocky III appears to have been pillaged the most but Southpaw doesn’t come close to matching that movie’s raw entertainment value. As always, Antoine Fuqua delivers a visceral experience with plenty of macho posturing, aggressive music, and bone-crunching action but the movie just doesn’t coalesce into a complete film. Neither loving it nor hating it, I am simply going to declare this movie a no contest.
Of all the different types of sports movies out there, boxing movies are the only ones I give a damn about. Fans of team sports movies like Hoosiers (1986), Bull Durham (1988) or Slapshot (1977) might cry foul, but my not being much of a sports fan in general leaves me in a situation where movies about team sports have never really resonated with me. Combat sports on the other hand, I find fascinating. I grew up in the 1980s and whether I was jumping for joy watching Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) or sitting in awe watching Mike Tyson run through his division like a god of war, boxing was a big deal to me. I likely lost a year of my life to playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! on the NES as well. As MMA rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, I became a rabid fan of the UFC and to this day I spend more hours per month watching MMA than I care to admit. That said, I’m not one of those guys who complains about movies featuring combat sports not being realistic enough. Any movie that tries to pretend as if Sylvester Stallone at 5’9” and 180 lbs dripping wet is a viable heavyweight clearly is not going in search of gritty realism. I can check my love of watching combat sports at the door temporarily when watching a movie although I have a lot of respect for the The Set-Up (1949) which cast actor Robert Ryan who knew how to box properly and was the heavyweight champion at Dartmouth all four years he attended the school. John Huston’s Fat City (1972) is probably the most moving and tragically realistic film about the life of a boxer. Daniel Day-Lewis also deserves high praise for his dedication to learning the sport for The Boxer (1997). Raging Bull (1980) doesn’t score a lot of points on realism but is definitely in the mix for the title of best boxing movie ever and one of my favorites by Martin Scorsese. The best possible boxing film for my taste is a great documentary and every once in a while we get a brilliant film like When We Were Kings (1996) or Tyson (2008). Long story short, I absolutely love boxing movies and will get in line for pretty much any movie about the sport.
So where does Southpaw sit you might be asking in the pound-for-pound rankings for all-time greatest boxing movies? As I sit here looking at a list online of pretty much every boxing movie ever made, first and foremost I realize how many more boxing movies I have left to see, but I have to say that I think Southpaw will slowly fade from people’s memories. In my opinion it is slightly better than a movie like Cinderella Man (2005) but not as good as Million Dollar Baby (2004). Jake Gyllenhaal clearly put in some serious hours training and does a capable job of imitating Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s highly defensive style of boxing that Gyllenhaal’s character Billy Hope learns to employ by the end of the movie. But all the acting talent and dedication in the world by Gyllenhaal can’t cover up the rest of the film’s flaws that cause it to limp along unimpressively. Serious boxing fans will enjoy cameos by real-life fighters like Victor Ortiz who briefly spars with Gyllenhaal and basically destroys any illusion that Gyllenhaal has any business standing in the ring, but that is about all the movie has to offer. If you can’t live without boxing movies or are simply in love with Jake Gyllenhaal by all means give the movie a try. But for my part I will quickly be putting this movie out of my head and turning my eyes toward the next two weekends of UFC action where two of my favorite fighters in the world, T.J. Dillashaw & Ronda Rousey will both be defending their respective titles. If you’ve never watched the UFC, now would be an excellent time to start. It is a very good time to be a fan of combat sports.
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