I don’t think there’s any disagreement that Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker are two of our most talented actors. They immerse themselves in every performance, particularly Gyllenhaal of late, and it’s a privilege to watch either of these two men at the top of their form. And yet, when it comes to Southpaw, we must ask what ends these talents serve. For all the work these actors put in, the characters and the story they live fall short.
Originally constructed as a follow-on for Eminem’s 8 Mile, he wisely stepped aside to focus on his music career; Gyllenhaal certainly elevates the material from what it could have been. And yet the script refuses to give him much to work with as a brawling boxer who falls from grace and must struggle to redeem himself.
We start out with Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) winning the WBA’s light heavyweight belt, and we establish his two main strengths: he can take a beating long enough for his temper to kick in and knock the other guy’s block off. And we also set up his nemesis: Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez), who starts taunting Billy for his own fight during the post-match press conference.
Billy got his temper and his start on boxing growing up as an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen. Yes, just like Daredevil. Billy’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) did too, and they’ve come a long way their estate outside the city. Maureen wants Billy to retire before he gets even more seriously hurt, so he can be with her and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). But when Billy’s temper gets the best of him and he takes a swing in response to Miguel’s taunting it’s Maureen who gets hurt; she takes a bullet from an unknown gun in the ensuing mêlée.
With Maureen dead, Billy sinks into his depression and rage. He flames out spectacularly in his next bout, all his stuff is repossessed, his manager (50 Cent) leaves to handle Miguel’s career, and he loses custody of Leila, who for some reason has to go into the same inner-city foster system Billy came from. Billy turns up at the gym of Tick Wills (Whitaker), desperate for a job and the training to get his life back together.
And here we come to the most glaring flaw in the story. Still filled with anger — and, by the way, there is little more boring than white machismo being petulant at not getting everything it wants — Billy can’t answer when Tick asks what he did to end up where he is. He says someone shot his wife, but Tick presses him: what did he do. Unable to take responsibility for his own part in his downfall, Billy upends a bar stool and storms off.
Taken on its own, this is actually a great centerpiece for a boxing film. As Billy trains towards the eventual matchup with Miguel, the improvement in his form can reflect his personal growth. And yet, having come this far, the script never makes Billy actually confront his own responsibility for his own life. He puts it off on other people, saying how Maureen always made the decisions, but he never actually faces himself and admits fault for escalating the fight that led to her death, let alone everything he did on the way down from there. As far as this movie is concerned, the only thing he really needs to do to recover is to punch more skillfully.
And this sort of shallow hypermasculinity isn’t exactly surprising coming from The Shield and Sons of Anarchy writer Kurt Sutter and Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua. There’s a lot about redirecting and focusing anger, but there’s never a question that maybe punching things to death isn’t exactly a great problem-solving technique. Billy is even ordered into anger-management by the family court judge, and then we never see it because it simply does not matter to the filmmakers; empty words from a cold, distant bureaucrat.
This is all layered on top of some pretty ugly race and class undertones. Billy is the only white boxer we see, making him literally “‘The Great’ [White] Hope” — a term that arose a century ago, in a racist and segregated America that wanted nothing more from boxing than for a white heavyweight to end Jack Johnson’s reign as world champion. And when Billy goes looking for Miguel’s friends, the only place he checks is a drug-ruined apartment in the Marcy Projects. Of course, there’s also the fact that Billy is from the wrong kind of white people, and even when he was on top he was living so beyond his means that it was only a matter of time before he fell back into “his place” in the gutter.
It’s a dour, unsatisfying story dripping with testosterone and endorsing the worst assumptions about every man it sees so it’s easier to just accept Billy punching his way through all of his problems. But at the same time it’s another fantastic lead performance by Gyllenhaal and a solid supporting role for Whitaker. I just wish I could see them deliver this work in a better movie.
Worth It: yes, for Gyllenhaal’s and Whitaker’s performances.
Bechdel Test: fail.