Southpaw tells the story of Billy “the Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), an undefeated boxer who at the start of the film has just had his fourth successful title defense. His wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is a little worried that he’s too reckless in the ring, that his style of fighting could seriously harm him one day. And she convinces him to take a break from fighting for a while. But while leaving a charity event, a heated exchange with a rival fighter causes Maureen to get shot and die. Billy falls into a pit of despair and self-destruction, which causes him to lose everything, including his eleven-year-old daughter Leila, who is put into foster care.
And so the film follows Billy as he puts his life back together. He finds work at the gym of Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a former trainer who now refuses to work with pro boxers. Billy stays clean and tries to earn back the right to take care of Leila, and in doing so finds a road back to his championship. The film doesn’t stray very far from formula, its story mainly composed of familiar moments drawn from better films. Southpaw does get a lot out of its lead star’s intense performance, but the story it’s telling doesn’t really deserve that performance.
The most interesting moments of the film study the aftermath of a fight. Boxers, of course, aren’t magically healed the day following a match. There is a price to pay for getting into the ring, and the film does a great job of portraying the damage that stays with the body. But then the plot takes over, and the film starts to feel a lot more generic. This is a standard story of manly redemption, where the man on top loses everything, is humbled, and then works his way back. Every beat is preordained, and the film does little to add variation to the story.
Formula isn’t a terrible thing, but it helps a lot if the film can add some flavor on the fringes. It helps if the film can find other threads to add specificity to these familiar narrative tropes. The film’s biggest failures lie in populating its subplots with one-note characters that exist purely to serve as plot devices. The worst example of this is the character of Hoppy, whose story just abruptly ends to give the characters a reason to work together. And the film never deals with the emotional aftermath. The characters never really mention Hoppy again. The film seems to forget that Hoppy is supposed to matter to these guys.
But that’s really the way the film goes. It seems to actively avoiding adding emotional stakes to its own story. Its big climactic match shies away from the dramatic circumstances surrounding the fight, and it just becomes another boxing match on screen. To his credit, Jake Gyllenhaal tries his hardest to give this story something other than his formula. His pained, intense, and transformative performance gives the film a compelling center. But the story just doesn’t give the actor enough. Even though Gyllenhaal is clearly giving a lot, he still comes off as a bit of a cliché. The movie that surrounds the performance makes it seem more generic than it really is.
At some point, Southpaw just starts feeling like a contractual obligation for the people involved. That is, for everyone other than Jake Gyllenhaal. The writing sticks to the well-worn elements of the boxing redemption film. The direction makes the film look like every other boxing movie. All the while, Gyllenhaal continues to show remarkable commitment to a role and a movie that don’t really deserve it.