Thursday, July 30, 2015


The best films about boxing intermix the personal lives of boxers with their struggles in the ring.  Boxing becomes a romantic metaphor for the struggles of life, especially when life belongs to someone who by mischance or misdoing has fallen low, or never risen above their low station to begin with.  The Champ (1931) and Rocky (1977) fall in this category. 
Southpaw (2015) is not particularly original, but it’s entertaining.  It follows the patterns of The Champ and Rocky.  Winning a prize fight becomes a way of regaining control of one’s life, of redeeming one’s sins and mistakes, of saving one’s family.  The film, however, is well made, generally, and the acting, especially of the child actor Oona Laurence, of Forrest Whittaker (always impressive) as the trainer, and of Jake Gyllenhaal as the suggestively named Billy Hope is excellent.  The film is well paced, and it methodically works its way through initial exposition, calamity, setback, and the slow struggle to recovery.  The boxing scenes are convincing, both because the average audience member (such as myself) does not know enough about boxing to recognize fakery, because of fast and effective editing, and because of the basic skill with which they are made.
Enjoyable as it is, the film has a certain hollowness.  As soon as I learned it was a boxing film, I became suspicious of the formula I feared it would depend on, and the audience manipulations it might involve.  Those manipulations are there.  In the pathos of a young child angry at and worried over her suffering father.  In the figure of the trainer who seeks his own redemption through the fighter he warily agrees to train.  In the manager who is interested in Billy only as long as he offers means of earning money.  In the friends and hangers on who abandon him once disaster strikes.  And in the unlikely and inadvisable last-chance match that offers him the chance to recover his footing.  All these elements are in place.  All the director Antoine Fuqua has to do is connect them plausibly together.  There’s no doubt he makes the connections successfully.  But the plot pre-dates the film, which is like a connect-the-dots puzzle as a result.

There is an obvious setup in this film for a sequel.  This is unfortunate.  There is no need for a sequel.  We’re satisfied when the film is over and the long redemptive arc is complete.  But certain significant plot details are left unresolved.  Despite hints at the possibility of neurological damage, Billy misses the opportunity to tell his daughter, or his trainer, or the reporters at the post-bout press conference, that he’ll never fight again.  And so, unless ticket sales are weak, we’ll likely see Billy in the ring again.

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