Rocky. Raging Bull. Million Dollar Baby. Cinderella Man. The Fighter. Warrior.
What do these hit boxing movies of the past few decades have in common? They’re all considered to be among the genre’s very best. What else do they have in common? Barely any of them break away from the obvious clichés of the genre. It can be argued that Rocky set the standard for the modern boxing movie. Raging Bull, which released four years after Rocky snagged the Best Picture Oscar, is my personal pick for the best boxing movie ever made, and maybe I’m a bit biased toward director Martin Scorsese. But even Raging Bull, a better film than Rocky, didn’t do much different in terms of storytelling and structure.
I do have a point in bringing this up, and it’s this: Just because a movie is clichéd doesn’t mean it sucks. So what’s the case with Southpaw? Currently, it’s sitting at a mediocre 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus reading:
Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an impressively committed performance, but Southpaw beats it down with a dispiriting drama that pummels viewers with genre clichés.
Okay. So it isn’t only the genre clichés that make Southpaw receive most of its negative reviews, but it’s also its dispiriting dramatic qualities. But if we take a look at some of the aforementioned boxing movies, can we really say that all of them are inspiriting? Not a chance. Sure, Rocky is a glorious rags-to-riches story, but how about Million Dollar Baby? The brilliant yet heartbreaking ending of that film is anything but inspiriting, yet somehow it went on to win Best Picture.
If you haven’t seen Southpaw, it’s a good idea to stop reading now, as I’m about to get into some heavy spoilers (although they must not be that heavy given that the trailer saw it fit to include them in the theatrical trailer). In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a famous fighter, the World Heavyweight Champion in fact, living in extravagance with his wife Maureen (an incredible Rachel McAdams). If you went into the theater not knowing anything about the plot (stay away from the trailer!), then the film’s biggest moment will hit you like a train.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) brings in a strong female lead like Rachel McAdams (currently shining in this dull season of True Detective) and pulls a Godzilla, killing her off in the first act like Gareth Edwards did to Bryan Cranston’s character in last year’s epic monster movie. Little did I know, this was actually what sets the plot in motion, as it becomes a grimy and disturbing character piece exploring the depths of Billy’s person, his internal struggles as he tries to make things right with his daughter and the law after the loss of his wife drives him insane and he has his daughter taken away from him.
In contrast to the first Rocky, Southpaw is a riches-to-rags story, as we see Billy Hope’s descent into sorrow and we see him lose everything, from his wife to his house to his daughter. It’s tragic, and that isn’t because of the script. No, I don’t think Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s script is as bad as some people are making it out to be, but it isn’t that great either, sometimes going out of its way to make sure that the audience knows that Billy is feeling miserable after we’ve already gotten knocked over the head with that over a dozen times beforehand.
Now, think about the other movies I listed above. What else do they have in common besides having mild (and forgivable) clichés? They each feature at least one standout performance. Rocky had Stallone, who we may laugh at sometimes as a guilty pleasure action star but really does give a heartfelt performance as Balboa (and he even got an Oscar nomination for it). Raging Bull had DeNiro and Pesci (both received Oscar nominations, the former actually winning). Cinderella Man had both Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti (the latter getting an Oscar nomination). Million Dollar Baby had Hillary Swank, Morgan Freeman, and Clint Eastwood, the first two winning Oscars and Eastwood getting a nomination. The Fighter had Christian Bale (he won the Oscar). And Warrior had Nick Nolte, who got an Oscar nomination.
The real emotional tragedy of Southpaw comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, arguably the best and most committed actor working today, who comes into this thing like he owns it, giving this boxing movie a place on the list that includes those movies with outstanding performances from a cast member. It’s important to note his physical transformation in a matter of a year. He lost thirty pounds for his role in Nightcrawler, and he gained fifteen for this role, not including the weight he gained to get back to where he was before Nightcrawler. This kind of commitment is almost on par with Christian Bale, who weighed next to nothing in The Machinist and then got ripped for Batman Begins.
But it isn’t just the weight gain that makes Gyllenhaal soar in Southpaw, but it’s his uncanny dedication and fierce emotion that he sends through the screen. It isn’t just Southpaw either. With movies like Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, End of Watch, Source Code, Prisoners, Enemy, and others, Gyllenhaal can’t seem to stop delivering solid, if not profound, work. And even though his work in Prisoners is top notch and Nightcrawler might be his career best, it isn’t too far fetched to assume that Southpaw may be one of the best performances he’s ever given.
Even through the clichés of the script and the contrivances of the story (which aren’t as severe as some critics are noting), Gyllenhaal fights, and he fights hard. This could’ve been a boxing romp with nonstop training sessions and endless fighting. Instead, it’s a father-daughter piece that only uses boxing as a backdrop and a means for its characters’ finances. It never glorifies boxing in the way many boxing movies do, and I think that works to the film’s benefit.
Sutter may not have written a groundbreaking sports drama in the vein of some of the best of all time, but to say that Southpaw is a bad movie because of its reliance on clichés is, in my opinion, completely unfair; it’s also hypocritical if that person backs up movies like Million Dollar Baby or The Fighter. Also, just because a movie takes its character(s) to dark places doesn’t necessarily make it “dispiriting.” The ending of Million Dollar Baby is dispiriting. Southpaw has an uplifting ending. If we were judge a film as dispiriting based on it taking its characters to low places over the course of the 120-minute running time, then a large amount of movies would need to be considered dispiriting. Southpaw takes Billy Hope to low places, but it’s all about family and hope.
I sincerely hope that you don’t read this and assume that I loved Southpaw to pieces and that it’s among the best feature films I’ve seen in my entire life. Just because I’ve written an article defending it doesn’t mean that I think it’s perfect, or even that it’s great. It’s flawed, Fuqua isn’t my choice for a go-to director for a movie like this, and I think he struggles to maintain a consistent tone.
But seeing Jake Gyllenhaal on his knees with his face buried in his bed, screaming at the top of his lungs while gripping his sheets with clenched fists is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. And I didn’t even get to properly touch on the arrival of Forest Whitaker in the second act of the film, which adds some much needed seasoning to the pot. He’s a class-A actor, and don’t be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination for his work. Let’s cross our fingers for Gyllenhaal, as well. He’s earned it.