In “Southpaw,” Fuqua and Gyllenhaal Knock Themselves Out

Southpaw

Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015)

I can pinpoint the exact moment that this dreary film lost me. A terrible tragedy occurs towards the end of Act I – something that, in screenwriting terms is called a “plot point” or “inciting incident” – and all I could think was, “Really? You did that?” From then on, I was unable to pay attention to anything but the architecture of the script – written by Kurt Sutter, who did such fine work on “Sons of Anarchy” (and, full confession, the uncle of a former student of mine who will now probably never speak to me again) – rather than the story. The overtly manipulative direction by Antoine Fuqua – whose one near-masterpiece remains Training Day (but keep in mind that he also gave us The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen) – does not help. And try as he might, Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) – all tough sinew and crazy eyes, straining under the weight of the melodrama – can’t save the picture. To make matters worse, if you’re here for the boxing, it’s not even engaging on that level.

Still, some good people signed on for the movie. We’ve got Rachel McAdams (About Time) – wasted – Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) – wasted – and Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) – less wasted (but Hollywood is usually crueler to its female characters). Whitaker is also one of the producers (a role he plays a lot these days, including on the terrific Fruitvale Station). The participation of these otherwise talented actors matters not (would that the women had real parts!). At every point of the film, we feel the filmmakers raising the stakes, yet the stakes ultimately remain a construct, rather than a reality. Telegraphing the emotions we should be feeling through the soggy score by late film composer James Horner (I really feel like a jerk for not liking it more – sorry, James!) only serves to underline the paucity of genuine sentiment on the screen. Nothing is believable and nothing counts. It’s time for a rematch.