(SPOILERS) It’s slightly baffling to recall how there was serious Oscar talk for Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as boxer Billy Hope. Unless it was all Harvey Scissorhands hype (not beyond the bounds of possibility). I mean, sure, he’s buffed himself up convincingly, and inhabits a none-too-bright character, but that character simply goes through the motions of the fall-and-rise narrative. At every turn of Kurt Sutter’s creatively bereft screenplay there’s a hackneyed challenge to face, and Antoine Fuqua, the very definition of Hollywood journeyman, doesn’t have the tools to make shinola from Southpaw.
This was originally earmarked for Eminem (who provides the theme song Phenomenal), but it’s completely absent the rousing emotional journey that made 8 Mile so, well, reasonably phenomenal. After losing missus Rachel McAdams in an incident ignited because Billy just can’t control that temper of his, Billy loses his house and his daughter too, because he just can’t control that temper of his. Brought so low he has to take a job cleaning toilets for guru-like gym owner and ex-boxer Forest Whitaker, who doesn’t allow swearing on the premises, Billy must learn to just control that temper of his in order to get back in the game, and his bairn back.
These sorts of against-the-odds tales can work like dynamite when they channel the clichés to their benefit (look at Rocky, or the recent Creed), but, by assuming a gritty and hard-edged presentation at every opportunity, Southpaw merely draws attention to how pedestrian it is. Which only accentuates the maudlin aspects when they announce themselves. Unlike his scarily lunatic turn in Nightcrawler, there’s never a sense that Gyllenhaal isn’t just playing a part, and Oona Laurence, in the pivotal role of his daughter, lacks the naturalism necessary to sell their strained relationship.
Sutter’s screenplay is of the sort that could be abbreviated into a five-minute précis and lose nothing. It might actually gain something from having a over-dramatic trailer voiceover summarising each scene, rather than subjecting us to its permanently overwrought posturing. When it comes to the final fight with odious opponent Miguel (Miguel Gomez), poor Billy is even taunted with his dead wife’s name. That Miguel is so despicable! There’s a thankless role for Naomie Harris representing Child Protective Services, Fiddy Cent once again proves why he isn’t a full time thespian, and Whitaker makes his part in Taken 3 look nuanced. Fuqua’s next is The Magnificent Seven remake, which will doubtless be as profitable and forgettable as the majority of his movies.