Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: "Southpaw"

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Runtime: 125 minutes

Coming just one week after Trainwreck, Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw serves as a grim reminder of what happens a formulaic plot meets formulaic execution. Whereas the Apatow-Schumer collaboration created a typical rom-com executed with with humor and heart, Fuqua's work with Sons of Anarchy creator/writer Kurt Sutter is emotionally stunted. You've seen this story of an athlete seeking redemption, and you've seen it done so much better that this latest iteration isn't worth your time.

Not even Jake Gyllenhaal, coming off of a winning streak that peaked with Nightcrawler, can do much to elevate the material. From a physical standpoint, the role is every bit as transformative as the one the actor played in Dan Gilroy's thriller, albeit on the opposite end of the spectrum. Gyllenhaal gain between 20 and 30 pounds of muscle to play boxer Billy Hope. Yet the external transformation is the most impressive aspect of Gyllenhaal's work. Of all of his recent projects, Southpaw gives Gyllenhaal the most traditionally Leading Man role, and the actor sells every minute.

But underneath the muscles and the screaming and cursing, Southpaw's protagonist rings hollow. The blame shouldn't be laid at Gyllenhaal's feet, but rather at Sutter and Fuqua, who have hardly fleshed out the character beyond the most obvious and blunt surface details. With such a textbook protagonist, it's even more difficult to care about the mechanical storytelling. A man is on top of his respective profession, then tragedy sends him into free fall. What is he to do in his hour of woe? Why, revisit his roots, get help from an elderly black mentor (Forest Whitaker), and work his way toward a boxing match that could serve as his redemption. Southpaw is Raging Bull filtered through the aesthetic of 8 Mile, but without the raw intensity of either.

Fuqua has never been a particularly nuanced director, and Mr. Sutter doesn't do much to help. As the architect behind one of TV's most suffocatingly MACHO prestige dramas, Mr. Sutter is an ideal fit on paper. But vapid bluntness multiplied by faux-gritty vapid bluntness only leads to...well, you get the idea. It's not enough to offer audiences a Damaged Male Protagonist and expect a connection, and it hasn't been that way for a while (and as for the way the film uses its female characters...yikes). 

All of this reinforces the notion that Southpaw is, from a pop culture standpoint, a bit of an unintentional relic. Even from a technical standpoint, it's a surprisingly flat piece of work. Fuqua's images are a mix of the glossy and the grimy, and both sides are equally artless. The fight scenes effectively communicate the brute force of taking a punch to the face, but they never heighten the story's drama. Every story beat is so obvious that's no room to be engaged in the moment. A story of blood, sweat, and tears shouldn't feel so rote, yet here we are.  

Grade: C-

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