Antoine Fuqua is something of a one hit wonder. After bursting onto the scene with his 2001 smash hit Training Day, pretty much all of his follow up films have ranged from mixed to outright deplorable critical reception. Fuqua is a case of director very comparable to Ridley Scott, in that he’s a technically proficient and uniquely stylish director with a tendency to pick poor screenplays.
For this reason, there was always a sense of justified skepticism over his boxing-centric drama Southpaw. Originally intended to be a star vehicle for Eminem, the film would have been his first major film role since 2002’s 8 Mile. In the end, though, Eminem exited the project (while still contributing to its soundtrack), and the lead role instead went to Jake Gyllenhaal, who has been on a recent hot streak culminating with last year’s Nightcrawler. So, it’s with a heavy heart that Southpaw turns out to be a disappointment. It’s Fuqua’s best film since Training Day, but with his output, that’s not setting a high bar.
Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope, a punch-drunk light heavyweight boxer who seems to have it all; a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), a loving daughter, and a happy home life. However, when aggression gets the better of him at a charity event, an incident results in the accidental and fatal shooting of his wife, and in his state of emotional imbalance, his daughter is taken away from him. At rock bottom and suspended from professional boxing matches, he secures a job with local gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to get himself and his life back in shape, work his way back up, and regain custody of his daughter.
Fuqua’s most common vice as a director, as said before, is his ability to pick screenplays. He’s a very gritty and stylish director, whose films are mostly grit with little substance, often relying on his lead stars to provide dimension and engagement where there is none on paper. And God forbid it be a case like The Equalizer or King Arthur wherein he has neither to his credit. Sad to say that Southpaw falls into that same exact category as well, for while Fuqua proves more than capable with the environment, the screenplay by Kurt Sutter has little idea of what to do with it.
Most of the film’s focus is centered on the family aspects, and while I understand why those are and should be vital elements, they’re the least interesting and most formulaic elements of the film. They take note from numerous other boxing-centric dramas, and have no creative or intelligent new spin on them; hitting notes we’ve seen dozens of times before. I will admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Rachel McAdams, but despite that fact, and the surprising amount of screentime she has in the first 25 minutes, even fans of hers will likely be disappointed by how little she has to work with, and how little lasting impact she leaves on the rest of the film. I prefer Gyllenhaal’s interactions with his daughter, played by young Oona Laurence who gives the material a better performance than it deserves, but her actual writing suffers from the common mistake of being written by how someone thinks a child would say rather than what a child would actually say. Factor in a few other sloppy dialogue moments and superfluous additions, and the screenplay amounts to nothing special.
That said, the direction of the film is exceptionally well executed, even managing to mask some of the more obvious script issues. It’s clear that Fuqua has a serious investment with the material, and crafts and paces the film with a meticulous eye. His style of visceral aesthetics and bleak color tones is also a natural fit for the boxing circuit, approaching all of the boxing sequences with a welcome sense of experimentalism. His usual DP Mauro Fiore shoots the sequences in alternately close focus and well placed wide shots to ensure we’re able to take in every second of the gritty and violent impacts, and even places in appropriately dizzying POV shots for better immersion. James Horner, with his last completed film score before his tragic death a month ago, provides the most minimalistic work of his career, setting aside grand orchestras in favor of softer electronics and sparing pianos. Editor John Refoua (Fiore, Horner, Refoua, I’m starting to think this was an Avatar reunion) cuts the boxing sequences with as much precision and lasting impact to allow us to fully comprehend the quick choreography of the boxing, all of which are admittedly rousing, particularly the ending match which has a surprising emotional response.
On the acting front, Gyllenhaal is by far the best lead performance Fuqua’s films have had since Denzel Washington in Training Day, and perhaps even the best of Gyllenhaal’s career. At once both tragic and aggressive, Gyllenhaal effortlessly taps into the instabilities of the character, and even when the film overplays the emotional moods, he never does so. He’s naturally tender and restrained in the sequences with his closest family and friends, but is also prone to easy temperamental outbursts, with the ring in particular acting as his violent means of letting seething rage out. The makeup on him both inside and outside the ring is equally important to his transformation, with terrible bruises, scars, and blood-shot eyes always looking impressive. Forest Whitaker proves to be a warm anchor for Gyllenhall to double act with, with the actor more invested in a role than he has been in years, with several obvious, but still impressive “Oscar clips” to his credit.
All in all, Southpaw is not the unqualified success many may have been hoping for, but that’s not to say that it’s without merit. Both exceptionally directed and terrifically acted, it manages to rise above its muddy screenplay with a surprising amount of engagement and entertainment value. It certainly deserves a recommendation. Just don’t go in expecting to be blown away.
*** / *****