Every new boxing movie faces a dilemma. Whether it wants to or not, any film rendering the sport of kings must be judged against those two eternal blueprints of the genre. There’s been challengers. But Raging Bull and Rocky remain the heavyweight champions. You almost pity a movie like Southpaw.
Does director Antoine Fuqua aim for Scorsese’s artful, sensitive camera movements – boxing as ballet? Does he vie for something more approaching Stallone’s sense of personal triumph and inspiration? Or does he try something new?
It begins, as boxing movies are inclined to do, with a boxing match: introducing Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) at the height of his powers, cocky, reckless, but unequivocally the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. He has a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), and a tenacious promoter (50 Cent). He’s rich, he’s successful. Life is good.
But then, Kurt Sutter’s script manoeuvres a tragedy into Hope’s life, in the clumsiest and most cynical of manners; and the stage is rapidly set for a sour melodrama. Funerals, drink, drugs, guns, homes repossessed, children taken into care, extended crying scenes, rain… a veritable montage of misery.
All of this piles on in unrelenting fashion so that, much like Alan Partridge before him, Hope can bounce back. Forest Whitaker, in whispering mentor mode, reluctantly helps him back to form. A comeback beckons. It doesn’t take a boxing expert to guess how it ends.
Southpaw isn’t terrible. You cannot doubt Gyllenhaal’s chameleonic commitment to the role. You believe every punch he throws. You feel every one he takes.
But you can’t help wondering what it’s trying to say, and whether it’s even worth saying. Does the boxing-as-redemption cliché really need regurgitating? Do we need another I-hate-to-see-you-do-this-to-yourself speech from a fretting wife? Is the only way to regain your daughter’s love really just to go twelve rounds in the ring?
Do Scorsese and Stallone have anything to worry about? On this evidence, their title belts remain safe.