At one point in the boxing-redemption melodrama Southpaw, our disgraced former champion is visiting his daughter in protective services, after having trouble managing his anger and his money. She needs help with her spelling, and because Southpaw is a blunt instrument lacking nuance and subtlety, the second word (after ‘dismantled’) is ‘hopelessness.’
Oh, and their last name is Hope. Get it?
Jake Gyllenhaal immerses himself in this flawed hero, rising above a trite story with a masterful performance. We meet Hope at his peak, and Gyllenhaal’s charm and dedication keep what otherwise would be a questionable figure likeable.
Hope isn’t particularly humble, or is he reserved. Part cocky showboat, part warm fan-favourite, Hope smiles for the camera and grunts at reporters, and isn’t afraid get his pretty mug mashed in. That’s because apparently his rise to undefeated champion involves taking a beating and enjoying it, with the tendency to become stronger as the fight goes on and an ability to channel rage.
Not surprisingly, his rage gets him in trouble; more specially, his wife. It’s the first of a staggering trend downward. Even then, Hope struggles to gain fan support – our support. That he ignores the consul of his wife, a decision that leads to his and her demise, certainly doesn’t help things. We’re to sympathize with a man who lacks control, who lashes out, and who clearly has ego issues, and it just doesn’t happen.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, there is the director signature attention to gritty and bloody detail, yet also a weakness for the melodramatic. We’ve been here before with a tragic hero seeking redemption: he loses control, slums around, and hope is only found (rather quickly too) in the form of a disciplined trainer with immeasurable wisdom and a low, tempered voice. That’s Whitaker, the boxing whisperer as it were, and the most enjoyable part of this exercise in formulaic storytelling.
I suppose there are parallels to the actual state of boxing today. The sport that has drifted into the background from once popular regard; the only anticipated bout of recent memory produced a lackluster and indeed, entirely expected respect. Southpaw, while well-executed and driven by a great lead, can’t rise above the context of its predecessors, failing to make anything new and exciting.