Coming off of two successful films, director Antoine Fuqua and Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal raised the level of anticipation for their latest. Unfortunately, this championship pairing manages not to score a knockout but also fails to win on audiences scorecards, as well.
The story centers on Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is a punch-drunk boxer who rose from a New York City orphanage to becoming the Undisputed and Undefeated World Light Heavyweight champion. After his latest successful title defense, in which Billy is injured, his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) urges him to think about quitting while he’s still at the height of his fame and has his health.
Soon the hot-headed champion is taunted into a brawl by an upstart boxer and tragedy strikes. Billy spirals into self-destructive behavior, losing his title, his fortune and custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) in quick succession. After reaching hitting his professional and personal bottom, Billy seeks the help of Titus “Tick” Wills (Forest Whitaker), who trains young boxers at an inner-city gym. Tick agrees to take on Billy. Slowly the two men learn to trust each other, and Billy begins a journey toward finding glory in the ring again.
Originally created as a vehicle for Eminem after 8 Mile, the prolific emcee dropped out several years ago to concentrate on his music and Fuqua lucked out getting the multi-talented Gyllenhaal to take his place. Coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in Nightcrawler as well as solid turns in films such as Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead and Love and Other Drugs, Gyllenhaal is sensational as Hope and the only thing keeping him from another nomination is the film’s early release date.
Oscar-winner Whitaker is also solid as a Hope’s trainer who is a combination of Burgess Meredith from the Rocky franchise and Morgan Freeman’s Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris from Million Dollar Baby, who helps the embattled boxer refocus and start all over again.
Fuqua follows his consistent M.O. by anchoring his boxing drama around a strong alpha male, much in the same vein as Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen, Shooter, and The Equalizer. Unfortunately for Fuqua, his latest film comes up short due to a movie long on story and short on action, plus too many underdeveloped characters. Not sure if whether the fault lies in Kurt Sutter’s script or in the editing room under the supervision of John Refoua, but either way it undermines two really strong performances.
Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull still remains the platinum standard, with Million Dollar Baby and the recent Rocky Balboa closely behind. With another boxing film, Creed, in theaters later this year, Fuqua’s Southpaw itsmissed a golden opportunity to stake its claim as a contender. Instead, the film is merely a clichéd paper champion!