If you’ve never seen a boxing film in your entire life, I guess it would be plausible to label “Southpaw” a good movie. Other than that, you’d have no excuse to fall for this terrible script, from first-time feature writer, Kurt Sutter. His rookie status is apparent. The “Rocky” franchise, “Raging Bull”, “The Champ”, “Cinderella Man”–for better or worse, Mr. Sutter has obviously swallowed them all. So, he proceeds to bludgeon us with predictable, by-the-numbers plot devices as evidence. It doesn’t help that the director is Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”, “The Equalizer”), whose pumped-up, muscular style only works on occasion. Quiet finesse is something neither of these guys seem acquainted with–it’s all pounding. Remember that tender 1976 scene, where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa walks the tough neighborhood girl home at night? Fuqua and Sutter do not.
Billy Hope (a convincing Jake Gyllenhaal) is the super-wealthy, mega-famous, Light Heavyweight Champion of the World (an amateurish screenplay choice, as far as this boxing fan is concerned…the Middleweight Championship is far more lucrative and prestigious). Hope is a winner, but he takes lots of punishment in his victories, and he’s nearing the end of his storied career. But after tragedy strikes his beautiful, supportive wife Maureen (an almost completely wasted, Rachel McAdams) at a charity event…Billy’s entire life takes a startling nosedive. Abusing drugs and alcohol, Hope loses custody of his young daughter, Leila (a quite good Oona Laurence), blows all his money, and has his property seized. And faster than you can say training montage, crusty, aging trainer “Tick” (it only sounds like Mick) Willis (a slumming Forest Whitaker) is readying Hope for his big comeback.
There’s been talk of Jake Gyllenhaal getting an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing to do. But if it happens, I hope they don’t forget to recognize 13-year-old Oona Laurence, who is every bit Mr. G’s equal in their scenes together. However, it would take more than two solid acting jobs to salvage this screenplay. The talented Rachel McAdams looks stunning, makes her mark in a couple of scenes–and then vanishes. It’s a major blow. Forrest Whitaker struggles mightily against falling into the Rocky’s trainer cliché pit–and fails. That underground sound you heard was Burgess Meredith spinning. The boxing scenes are authentic, but the rival fighter role is typically overblown. The movie manages to find some footing in the tender father-daughter moments, but otherwise “Southpaw” is badly in need of some smelling salts.