(Antoine Fuqua, 2015)
There is a certain level of automatic audience identification and interest generated by a story about a parent trying to get back their child. There is a similar level of automatic audience identification and interest generated by an underdog boxing story, following a fighter who loses everything and sets out on a road to redemption.
In its third act, Southpaw benefits from a confluence of both of these story types, and rides a mix of action and emotion to a stirring finale. With this kind of material, only bad filmmaking and awful acting can really prevent a movie from working to a certain extent, and Fuqua's best work here is in the boxing sequences, guaranteeing a level of tension as the climax approaches and the stakes are set as man against man. But the film has gotten to this point almost despite itself. Written by Kurt Sutter, the story is hilariously generic. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhal) is a World Champion Boxer, married to his childhood sweetheart Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Having met in the care system, they do their best to provide a loving environment for their daughter Leila. Billy's fighting style rests on taking a lot of punishment, and using his anger to power his own efforts. Maureen acts as his manager, and she doesn't see a future in such an approach. But a scuffle with the entourage of a title contender leads to a tragic accident, and a newly widowed Billy goes to pieces and loses everything, including his livelihood and Leila. Halfway through the film then, he approaches Tig Wells (Forest Whitaker), who trained the only man Billy regards as having outfought him, and asks him to train Billy in another way.
This all means that the film is split between two basic movements; the tawdry melodrama of Billy trying to put his life back together so that he is worthy of Leila's love, and the overly familiar stuff with Billy adapting his fighting style and disciplining himself so that he can become a far more effective boxer. The melodrama is marked by a collection of "intense" performances led by Gyllenhal as Billy. He emotes furiously and is convincing as a boxer - all tattoos and sweat and blood and muscles - but all the emoting and intensity never really adds up to a convincing or interesting character. McAdams is much better in her scenes as a warmly realist Maureen, as is Whitaker as wise old Tig. The boxing stuff is interestingly detailed, allows for a training montage or two, and yet makes for a curiously undramatic climax, since Billy has learned to fight with patience and caution rather than the blood and thunder of his old style. That all means that while Southpaw just about works, it is too generic, too forgettable and too familiar to be all that good.