DOES THE WORLD really need another movie about a gritty white boxer from the wrong side of the tracks, who gets as good as he gives, whose struggles in the ring mirror the struggles in his personal life? Absolutely not. And yet the sheer, unblinking earnestness with which Southpaw tries to convince you that it does almost works. It sticks to the formula so closely that it becomes a mantra, an incantation. "He gets as good as he gives. He gets as good he gives. It's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get back up. Where'd you park the car Boo Boo forever and ever amen."
How predictable is Southpaw? Jake Gyllenhaal plays a boxer named Billy "The Great" Hope. Billy Hope is married to his childhood sweetheart (Rachel McAdams), whom he met when he was 12, when they were both living in "a Hell's Kitchen orphanage." (Does Hell's Kitchen still have orphanages? My ex-girlfriend used to live there, and it was pretty nice.) During one of Billy's victories, announcer Roy Jones Jr. (playing himself) quips, "We still have Hope!" The soundtrack for Billy Hope's Rocky-style training montage? Eminem.
Billy Hope is on top of the world until he gets into a scuffle with a title challenger. Their entourages pull their pistols, a shot rings out, and Billy Hope is suddenly a single father (all of this is in the trailer, by the way). He loses everything so fast it makes quadriplegic Hilary Swank signing over power of attorney with her teeth in Million Dollar Baby seem like subtle writing. JUDGE: "Your wife is dead so we had to bulldoze your house and give your daughter to some wolves. Sorry, bro." *gavel sound*
Tombstones are talked to, a grizzled mentor enters the picture (Forest Whitaker, playing a one-eyed trainer named Wills—"One-Eyed Wills!" I just got that!), someone shouts "It should've been you," and Jake Gyllenhaal has to win one last unwinnable fight for the proverbial Gipper against a fast-twitch ethnic type.
When you hear someone is making a movie about a white boxer named Billy "The Great" Hope and his trainer One-Eyed Wills, you figure it's going to be one of two things: (1) a parody/satire of the genre, or (2) terrible. Southpaw defies expectations by offering a third possibility: a movie so bold in its utter predictability that you start to rethink what it is about this story that makes us okay with watching it over and over. I still haven't figured it out, but while I try, I'm happy to keep watching Jake Gyllenhaal squint and grimace through his eye putty while Forest Whitaker shouts metaphors at him.