Delivers Powerful Left Hook

Finally, a film that despite its flaws satisfies and earns favourable review!  Southpaw is juxtaposed against Jake Gyllenhaal’s Raging Bull not so much for comparison as for contrast with regard to meeting its own criteria. However, the star of Southpaw, Billy Hope, like Raging Bull’s LaMotta, have similar traits, with a common need for anger management, though rage helps them win fights. The movie is also compared with Rocky; and has a redemptive twist when Hope resolves his issues in a bid to convince the authorities that he is a fit parent; and so that he can fight and win without the anger.  Yet it is anti-climactic and Fortune’s in-house film critic does not care for the overdone tearjerker scenes, so it is not out of emotion that Southpaw is awarded seven out of 10 stars.  

Those who claim that Raging Bull does not realistically depict boxing matches are entirely missing the point. The film is not about boxing – just as all sports movies are not about the sport they portray – but about the athlete. The boxing scenes in Raging Bull are Jake LaMotta’s states of mind which mirror his emotions. He is a mean man who is always in conflict with himself and everyone around him (even his brother) because of his incessant jealousy and his rage. And the latter of these predominate human flaws, does not just mark his downfall but also his success as a boxer.

LaMotta’s main weapon when he fights is the anger that drives him to thump his opponents to a pulp. But this anger also drives him to beat his wife and his brother, the only two people that ever liked, respected and cared for him. If only he could have found a way to utilise the one thing that, on one hand makes him the Middleweight Champion of the World and on the other, drives him to alienate those close to him – he would have been perfect. If only he could have known when to be angry and when not to, he could have been happier.

In mentioning Raging Bull, I am not planning to compare and contrast the movie with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw, which would just be ridiculous. It would be like assessing my four year old brother’s innocent crayon paintings in terms of the Mona Lisa. Just as I would not be irritated that he does not top such a humongous piece of art, Southpaw does not (and should not) get scolded for not making it all the way to De Nero and Scorsese’s standards, but simply for not hitting its intended mark and not being great in its own – much less ambitious – criteria.

What makes this movie similar to that of Raging Bull is its protagonist, Billy Hope. A World Light Heavyweight champion, Hope grew up in an orphanage without anyone by his side but his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Maureen. With her help, he rises to riches, forms a family and more than once defends his title. He accomplishes all of this with the help of his brutal fighting skills that are not much different from those of LaMotta’s. When he boxes, he gets hit a lot but absorbs those hits and as a result weakens his opponents. He then releases his “raging bull” and knocks them to the ground. And like LaMotta, the bull does not loosen only when he is in the ring but also outside of it, and as a result, this anger problem indirectly facilitates his wife’s death.

After this tragedy, Hope (his last name becomes some kind of an ironic metaphor now) begins a downward spiral into alcohol, drugs and a yen for vengeance. At a later boxing fight, he gets himself suspended by attacking a referee and all his belongings (including his house) are repossessed because he has not paid any of his debts. He ultimately hits the bottom when he crashes his car into a tree while he is intoxicated. This leads to his only child being taken away from him (the last remnant of his wife’s legacy) – an incident that knocks him out of this reverie and drives him to rise from the ashes.

After this point, the movie goes into full Rocky mode. It becomes the story of an underdog who struggles for redemption. He gets himself a new trainer (played, slightly pretentiously, by Forest Whitaker) who helps him not just get back to the number one spot and prove to the authorities that he is a responsible adult who can take care of his daughter but also achieve a state where he wipes the anger away from his life and learns to fight without its aid.

The writer of Southpaw originally scripted the movie as a vehicle to Eminem because the rapper’s place in the Hip-Hop world (as someone who is white and not expected to rap) is identical to that of a southpaw – a left-handed fighter (who is not usually expected to make a great boxer). And I have a feeling that this theory is what gives the movie its hip-hop influence, which is one of the major factors that lessen the movie’s efficiency. Not just the film’s, but also that of its director’s.

Antoine Fuqua, whose greatest achievement came way back in 2001 with Training Day, holds the esteemed pleasure of being the only director whose work I reviewed twice for Fortune. There naturally is a two year gap between a director’s successive outputs, but that does not mean I have critiqued movies that long but that Fuqua has recently been proliferate. And maybe this is the reason he is making films that are not focused.

Southpaw, like Fuqua’s last year’s The Equalizer, starts with great promise only to fall into the enticing, and mostly unavoidable, trap of clichés. The camera work always calls more attention to himself than to the film’s story and the score is too obvious and contemporary (most likely will fall out of style next year). He loves tearjerker scenes and tries reaping unearned high key emotions from his audiences in order to fool them into thinking that they have seen a good movie. Most of all, he is scared of commitment, of going where the story is taking him, of breaking the rules, because he is fearful that mainstream audiences might not like his movies; as such he dulls his endings.

The movie, by all means, belongs to Gyllenhaal. There were points in the movie that could have clouded his performance – like when Fuqua demands him to do emotive scenes in close-up, and at times, swagger like a rapper – but Gyllenhaal swoops through them uninhibited. I would not go as far as trying to compare his performance with that of De Nero’s as LaMotta – the difference is night and day, but that is only saying something about De Nero’s splendour – but Gyllenhaal is going down a road that may, one day, under a better filmmaker, lead there. For now, he has to make do with the fact that he is the spine of the few reasons that makes seeing this movie worth the ticket price.


Published on Sep 14,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 802]



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