Director Antoine Fuqua is best known for two things: Training Day and a bunch of middling action films that aren’t Training Day. Fuqua has a penchant for portraying images of tortured masculinity, of men overcoming their baser instincts to become decent human beings. Though technically proficient in getting his cast and crew to make effective films, those films don’t seem to have much to say anymore, simply adopting his favorite masculine tropes and adapting them to whatever stock narrative he can get his hands on. This is precisely the problem with Southpaw, which is never an outright bad film, but is one that is immediately forgettable upon viewing.
At the height of his career, the quite unsubtly named boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has money, fame, a beautiful wife, and a loving daughter. However, one day, in a confrontation with another boxer, his wife gets shot by one of the other boxer’s bodyguards, leaving him a widower and his daughter without a mother. After a spiral of self-destructive behavior, Billy loses his fortune to creditors and his daughter to child services. Now, under the tutelage of seasoned boxer Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker, trying on the “wise old black man” trope), Billy must work his way back into the ring to make a better life for him and his daughter.
This whole premise plays out like a mix between Rocky and 8 Mile, which isn’t surprising once you realize that the character of Billy Hope was originally written with Eminem in mind. The whole production oozes with Eminem’s influence, including the rap-heavy soundtrack and the casting of 50 Cent as Billy’s manager. However, for whatever reason, Eminem dropped out of the project and the infinitely more talented Jake Gyllenhaal was hired in his stead (and beefed himself up in a physical transformation that is equally as impressive as his gaunt character in last year’s Nightcrawler), which paradoxically works to the film’s detriment. Though Gyllenhaal is a much better actor, Billy is not a character that was written with Gyllenhaal’s range in mind, meaning that Gyllenhaal ends up mumbling his best Marshal Mathers impression for the entirety of the runtime. If Eminem had stuck with the project, there would have at least been the element of playing a version of oneself that made him somewhat interesting in 8 Mile. Instead, though Gyllenhaal is clearly doing his best, he’s stuck with material that was designed to mask Eminem’s lack of talent, thereby obstructing Gyllenhaal’s actual talent.
Meanwhile, the Rocky elements of the plot have been so superficially lifted from that franchise that it makes the latter half of the film a game of “spot the trope.” There’s forcing Billy to complete humbling and menial tasks to work his way up from the bottom; there’s a clichéd empowerment speech Titus gives to Billy in order to move him out of the dumps; there’s a training montage that shows us Billy’s progress without actually showing us anything interesting about boxing. It all plays out beat for beat effectively, but that just makes me wish I were watching Rocky instead so that it wouldn’t feel so derivative.
Though Southpaw is technically a decently directed film, just like most of Antoine Fuqua’s work, I can’t bring myself to recommend it. Maybe it’s just because I don’t latch on to the subject matter, but such close adherence to the sports-as-metaphor-for-self-improvement genre tropes makes this film feel undifferentiated from stuff we’ve all seen a million times before. It also doesn’t help that the film feels somewhat pointless without Eminem as the lead actor, no matter how dedicated Gyllenhaal is to making himself a believable substitute. Ultimately, this film is passable in both senses of the word: it functionally works as a movie, but it is entirely not worth your time.