Is Southpaw More Rocky or Raging Bull?

Boxing, by its very nature, is a highly cinematic sport. Some of the earliest filmed images are of a pugilistic dance, the ballet of mano-a-mano providing character, drama, and even comedy in watching two fighters duke it out.

The late 70s/ early 80s saw two films that solidified the genre in two vastly different ways – Rocky setup for modern audiences the definitive underdog story, while Raging Bull milked the operatic nature of life both in and out of the ring. So vast is the shadow of these two films that it’s almost impossible not to pigeonhole any fight drama that comes after it into one of these two corners of the ring.

Yet at its best Southpaw tries to have it both ways, and when it reaches for that lofty goal it’s a film to be lauded.  It’s ambitions are to be more than just a Rocky redux, and there are times when it’s clear that director Antoine Fuqua is dancing into Scorsese’s camp. 

Unfortunately for the film, these moments are few and far between, so we’re left with a film that feels in some ways redundant, another grasp at what Stalone’s film did to such great effect. What’s different, perhaps, is that they forgot part of what makes Rocky so remarkable, divorced from some of its more pyrotechnic sequels, is that the titular character lost his fight.


So, why watch Southpaw at all if it feels kind of like a Rocky III remake? It’s surely not for the storyline, which unfortunately plays as clichéd and predictable as one might fear. No, the real charm of the film, such as it is, is that the performers are genuinely giving their all. There’s a palpable satisfaction at watching Jake Gyllenhaal be entirely convincing as a man named Hope. 


Jake’s physical transformation is of course the most overt demonstration of his commitment to the role, but there are in fact quieter, more subtle elements that evoke just what a terrific actor he has become. His anguish feels as believable as his rage, yet it’s the moments where you get a sense of the punch-drunk haziness that the film (briefly) elevates to a richer level. Joined by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams, he’s got some real red-meat acting moments to delve into, and they’re a real pleasure to experience.

In the ring there’s an equal intensity, even if the opponents come across as mere comic book caricatures. Similarly, while 50 Cent comports himself adequately, his role is both underdeveloped and uninteresting, a poor simulacra of both Don King mashed with Tom Cruise’s role in Jerry McGuire. 

Despite the film never quite coming together there remains a genuine sense that Fuqua and Gyllenhaal really want this film to be not only entertaining but in some ways more than that. It’s obvious that they’ve done their homework, they’re aware of the strange kind of hubris that’s needed to do a fight film with any kind of originality, given that we’re less inclined to have new boxing films than, say, yet another Zombie massacre or comic book origin story. 


It’s unfair, perhaps, to hold this film to the standards of other legendary boxing films, yet that’s perfectly in keeping with the idiom. We have at its narrative core the context between two, a dialectical matchup pitting one against the other, with the loser being found wanting. What other genre of film is best positioned to be measured against its opponents, what other storyline more conducive to being punched at to see if it has the stamina to stay on its feet? 

Southpaw may stumble, its footwork maybe wobbly and its storyline at times farcically clichéd, yet as an exercise in performance and a showcase for its leads it’s a gratifying piece. A legendary fight it’s not, but as a workout for Gyllenhaal and his collaborators it’s worth the time spent in the ring.   

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