Film review: No knock-out blow for Southpaw

Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw
Cert 15 | ★★☆☆☆
There’s an exchange that takes place in every boxing movie ever, in which the trainer takes his hot-headed young buck aside, points to his fist and says, “it’s not about this” and then taps his temple and says,“it’s about this.” The message: mind over muscle. Thought over fight. Well, what may well be true of the sport of boxing isn’t always true of boxing movies, and it’s certainly not true of Antoine Fuqua’s disappointing Southpaw, a bruising slog of a film that has brawn to burn but is all but brain dead.
Winning in boxing is simple: hit and avoid getting hit. Or you can embrace getting punched in the face safe in the knowledge you’ve got a pile-driving uppercut ready to serve up in round 11. Light heavyweight champion Billy Hope (played by a mega-ripped Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the latter approach – in life and in the ring – and, rather unbelievably for a boxer with such kamikaze technique, he’s got a record of 43 wins to zero losses.
Hope’s swashbuckling style endears him to everyone but his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), who worries about the long term effects of him getting regularly beaten until his face resembles a stuffed-crust pizza. This is what Maureen does: she worries. She also parades around in her underwear. Never mind that McAdams is a talented actress – why force her to act when you can have her walking around in negligé like a glorified ring girl?
McAdams’ eye-candy bit-part is in keeping with Southpaw’s retro feel. Slow motion blood spatters, swooning, inspirational music – it all harks back to the 90s, a time when cheesy character names (Billy Hope? Really?) came as standard. The predictability with which it adheres to all these sports movie genre tropes is the most surprising thing about Southpaw. You expect more from Gyllenhaal, who has recently impressed playing weirdos in noirish masterpieces like Nightcrawler and Prisoners. He isn’t bad in this – his muscular performance is easily the best thing about Southpaw – but for all the table-flipping, mirror-punching and ab-rippling, it has half the impact of his other recent work.
On its solitary digression from cliché, the script does manage to say some interesting things about the American care system. Billy, himself a product of it, faces having his six-year-old taken away from him by the authorities after his career falters and a tragic accident causes him to spiral into alcoholism. An interesting demonstration of the cyclical nature of such things, perhaps, but it’s the only compelling aspect of Southpaw, which turns out to be an intense character study of some biceps and a temper.

CRITICS’ CHOICE: FILM

The Look of Silence ★★★★★
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing is more conventional but just as devastating
Amy ★★★★☆
A searching documentary goes some way to counteract the bad taste left by her last years
Ant-Man ★★★☆☆
A big film with a tiny hero – vacuous family fun

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