In the realm of boxing movies (Body and Soul and Raging Bull being two of my favorites), Southpaw hardly qualifies as a contender.
Boxing movies tend to punch hard, but that doesn't mean they should be totally lacking in nuance. A predictable story about the rise, fall and ultimate redemption of a boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw serves up plot points with all the subtlety of a clenched fist pounding a vulnerable face.
A Hip-Hop veneer masks some of the cliches, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) creates an in-your-face drama that fails to stake out a claim either as an example of hard-core realism or Rockyesque fantasy.
Brutal and bloody, Southpaw revolves around Gyllenhaal's performance as Billy Hope, a light-heavyweight champion whose rage ignites a dramatic and precipitous fall from grace.
Gyllenhaal effectively communicates Billy's polarity: fury coupled with occasional tenderness. Reticent and emotionally bottled up, Billy mumbles through a mouth that never seems to fully open.
I'd say that Gyllenhaal was better as a rogue TV cameraman in last year's Nightcrawler, but he's never anything less than intense in Fugua's full-bore assault on the senses.
Raised in a New York City orphanage, Billy is married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams), another product of the city's indifferent child-care system. They live in a mansion, want for little and have a loving marriage.
Early on, we learn that Maureen thinks Billy should take a break from boxing; she believes he's only a few steps away from permanent brain damage.
Oona Laurence plays the cute, bespectacled daughter who increasingly figures into the plot.
I'll leave the family drama for you to discover in a theater, but you should know that a terrible calamity results in Billy hitting the skids and being discarded by his self-serving manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson).
Billy also takes a Jake LaMotta style beating in the ring, a form of self-inflicted punishment. Billy apparently wants to pay for his sins.
When Billy finally embarks on the comeback trail, he receives help from the tough-minded proprietor of a run-down gym, a worn-looking Forest Whitaker.
Whitaker's Tick Willis, who works with poor kids, teaches Billy the fine art of defense, convincing him that his future depends on controlling his anger -- both in and out of the ring.
Fuqua goes to great lengths to make the audience feel the punches that are thrown in the ring, and he certainly conveys the dizzying excitement that surrounds a major fight, a couple in Madison Square Garden and another in Las Vegas.
But when the final bell sounds, Southpaw stands as a movie steeped in a fatal contradiction: It talks loudly and boldly, but has nothing much to say. It's full of intense close-ups, but almost totally lacking in elevating perspective.