The problem with boxing movies is that there are only two possible stories to tell: 1) A boxer trains hard, overcomes adversity, and wins, or 2) a boxer trains hard, overcomes adversity, and loses. Occasionally you get a boxing movie that throws a little extra juice into the formula, either by supplying a twist (Million Dollar Baby), or by using side plots as co-dependent metaphors—boxing is life and life is boxing!—like in Rocky and The Fighter. But no matter how you tinker with it, boxing movies only ever come in two varieties, win or lose, which means escaping clichés is virtually impossible. It’s the inherent problem of boxing movies, and it’s a problem that Southpaw, written by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), can’t overcome. Also Southpaw is incredibly stupid on a fundamental level.
Invoking Raging Bull and Robert DeNiro’s transformative performance, Jake Gyllenhaal packed on the muscle to play the hilariously named Billy Hope, a light-heavyweight champion who scrapped his way out of The System with the help of his hella hot, soulful wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). At the beginning of the film, Billy is an undefeated champ of forty-three fights, and then we watch his title fight as he gets his ass kicked because he apparently never learned to block a punch. Maureen is concerned for her husband’s long-term health if he keeps fighting—no shit! The guy can’t block to save his life! How has he won FORTY-THREE fights like that?! I know jack shit about boxing and I could tell Billy is a terrible boxer. Right away the movie has a logic problem because we’re supposed to believe this guy, who cannot block punches, is a world champion boxer.
It gets worse from there. Once Billy’s life has inevitably and on schedule spiraled out of control—and McAdams has exited the picture so that she can go on to star in the equally undeserving of her talent True Detective season two—Billy goes to a new gym to train with Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker, at his most Forest Whitakery). This is the combination training/overcoming adversity portion of the program, where we watch training montages intercut with scenes of Billy trying to reconnect with his young daughter, whom he lost to The System after he crashed and burned. I’ll get to the dumb weiner kid in a second, but we need to keep talking about Billy’s boxing. The title of the movie is “Southpaw”, referring to left-handed boxers. Remember how Billy is a world-champion boxer with over forty fights on his resume? Well he never learned he could punch with his left hand. Yes. That’s right. Billy Hope, world champion boxer and veteran of over forty fights, did not know he was an ambi-puncher. He is the Derek Zoolander of boxing.
Now, about that dumb weiner kid. In almost every instance, dumb weiner kids ruin everything because the adults writing the movie have no idea how kids actually talk or behave, and they’re inserted into narratives solely to engender sympathy for a protagonist and/or to propel action. For instance, the dumb weiner kids in Jurassic World are just there to cry about their parents’ divorce, thus injecting emotional stakes into an otherwise empty spectacle, and to propel the action by giving the protagonists something to chase through the jungle. The various screenwriters of Jurassic World couldn’t think of a compelling reason for their protagonists to risk entering the dinosaurs’ habitat—like, say, the power is out and we’re trying to get off this fucking island—so they tossed a couple dumb weiner kids out there as narrative bait.
The dumb weiner kid serves much the same purpose in Southpaw. Billy, bankrupt and at rock-bottom, loses his daughter to foster care because he’s an unfit parent, which is the adversity he must overcome to satisfy the boxing movie formula. Meanwhile, the little girl acts like a shrewish wife because Sutter has no idea how actual ten year olds behave. Southpaw would have been virtually unchanged if Billy simply didn’t have a daughter and instead of dying, Maureen leaves him after a downward spiral. Then he spends the movie winning back his awesome wife—the most naturally sympathetic and reasonable person in the movie—and we don’t have to deal with a dumb weiner kid.
Clichés, a stupid protagonist, a dumb weiner kid—the cards are stacked against Southpaw. Jake G is at maximum intensity, but his performance here lacks the flair of his turn in Nightcrawler, and he’s saddled with playing a terminally stupid character. Not even he can make Billy Hope anything other than a ridiculous caricature of a very narrowly defined type of manhood. The fight scenes are good, if you ignore the fact that Billy is a terrible boxer who should never win a fight, but that’s the entire problem with Southpaw. In order to draw any enjoyment from it, you have to ignore pretty much everything about it. That being the case, just don’t watch it.