The boxing film
Southpaw is like a Depression melodrama in which a good man loses, wife, family, home, child –partly through his own shortcomings mostly through events he can’t control — and has to go back to the ring and fight his way back to where he started in order to win back his own life and his daughter’s affections. It reminded me a little of The Champ (King Vidor, USA, 1931) but Southpaw is less tearjerking, the child is a daughter rather than a son, and the boxer survives at the end. Even when he wins, as here, he loses; the win in fact leaves him a few steps below where he started. He wins fight and daughter but still has no wife, no house, fewer friends, no trust, a more aged and less abled body. Like all boxing films, Southpaw is a parable for capitalism. It reminded me a little bit more of the original version of The Champ rather than the Franco Zefferelli 1979 remake with Jon Voight in the Wallace Beery role and Ricky Schroeder in the Jackie Cooper role because the remake eschewed the social and focused more overtly on the domestic and familial.
The boxing film might be the only genre that puts class, capitalism and masculinity at the forefront. That’s what the genre is about; and historically films like the great Body and Soul (Robert Rosssen, USA, 1947) have not only been critical on those subjects but have also been poetic in their criticism, with great dialogue one could reel off years after seeing the film (‘Everybody dies!’, ‘You need money to buy a gun’, ‘Life is just addition and substraction – the rest is conversation’…) Southpaw has many of the elements of the genre — a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, a good woman, an ornery old trainer, a dirty promoter, the very body as a site of struggle not only for home and family but for basic justice – but it starts at the point where the hero is already a champ and is about to lose everything.
The plot is not as coherent as one would like with some characters (Hoppy) just dropping off the radar too abruptly so that, whilst the rationale for their introduction is clear, the payoff their place in the narrative deserves doesn’t quite come off in the end. The relationship with the daughter is to my mind also misconceived; the film would have been better had they been entirely kept apart by the institutions rather than also by the daughter’s choice. I also think the film might have been slightly improved by a redistribution of the film’s set of knowledges so that there were moments where the audience knew more than its characters. It might have made it more moving than it already is; and a good cry at the state of an America pictured like this is really what’s called for but what the film doesn’t quite deliver. It’s also traditionally how the melodramatic genre elicits a kind of suspense and a kind of emotion: we know what’s coming before the protagonist does but can’t guide or act — we can only anguish at what’s coming and suffer along with the characters when it does.
What Southpaw does achieve is a great neon-noir look that evokes the attractions and dangers of poor people moving through cheaply coloured lights in a very dark world. But it stops short of being a stinging attack on the state of things, and to its detriment. 50 Cent is Jordan Mains, the slick promoter skimming his money whilst parroting loyalty and family values when things are going well only to kick him out of his office at the first sign of trouble. The film would have been better and pleased more had he got more of a comeuppance. I wanted him to squirm at the end of the film like the dirty promoter he is (and like every dirty promoter/gangster has squirmed at the end of almost every boxing film since forever). I don’t understand why the film denies us that moment.
But it does offer other, and great, pleasures. Jake Gyllenhall is unrecognisable and gives a complex performance — both brutish and delicate as Billy Hope: he’s really great. He’s got an amazing body in the sense that you could see all the work that went into it, but it’s not a naturally elegant or beautiful body, and it’s constantly on display and very affecting to see; all that work that went into it… and yet the torso is still boxy, the waist jutty; work buys results but it doesn’t buy perfection; and it works for the role because in boxing the body’s a tool and not just something to be looked at, though the film is incredibly expressive, movingly so, in the display of its destruction. Rachel McAdams, is sexy, vibrant, intelligent and loving as Hope’s wife; and her performance is what makes the moment of Billy’s loss so moving.
It sometimes feels that Antoine Fuqua is the only director currently working in American cinema who’s making serious films about ordinary people in a popular cinematic vernacular, generally the action film: Training Day (2001), Brooklyn’s Finest (2009) are what first come to mind but The Equalizer (2014), The Shooter (2007) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) also have things to offer to those minded to pay attention. Southpaw is in that vein: a bit patchy, not quite perfect but a serious look at working people on the margins of a multiracial America by someone who knows what it is and knows how to depict it for us. I think critics might have liked it better had the hero been named Billy Nohope. As it is, and with all its imperfections, I very much liked Southpaw.