2016.18: Southpaw (Blu-ray)
This film is chiefly notable, from my personal point of view, as being one of the very last films scored by James Horner. He died shortly before the film was released- the film carrying a dedication card at its conclusion that reads “In Memory of James Horner.”
I wouldn’t say the score is one of Horner’s best (although it could be argued that it was one of his most experimental), or that the film was one of the best films that was scored by him, although it’s certainly a competent film. Nonetheless Horner evidently felt a connection with the film; he was a friend of the film’s director, Antoine Fuqua, who told NPR shortly after the film was released that Horner had done the score for free -paying his crew out of his own pocket- because he enjoyed the film and in particular loved the father-daughter relationship in the movie.
What Horner focused on was the highlight of the film. Southpaw is a boxing movie, and depicts its fights in as gritty a fashion as one might expect of a modern film, but it really uses the boxing as a background to its real drama- the real focus is on the relationship of the central protagonist Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal in another fine performance) and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence, who is sensational, considering she was only eleven when the film was shot), who are estranged following a family tragedy. The film’s weakness is that it follows a fairly predictable course- I don’t think it really surprises at all, but this doesn’t really diminish the accomplishment of the main actors delivering genuine heartfelt performances. The problem for the film is that people who would invest in this kind of story are not the ones who would normally watch a ‘boxing movie’ and likewise those who would gravitate towards a boxing movie are not the same who would be necessarily rewarded by this human interest story.
I have described Southpaw as competent, which feels like I’m damning it with faint praise. I enjoyed the film but always felt one step ahead of the twists and turns of the plot, and the ending is never in doubt. The journey getting there is fine and enlivened by those aforementioned performances, but what this film lacks was a bravery to twist things up, pull the rug under the audiences feet and undermine expectations that we are watching another Rocky. We have a ‘hero’ who literally loses everything, and can only regain it all by triumphing against the odds and winning back his boxing title with the aid of a wise old boxing trainer who has his own emotional baggage to carry. It feels like it carries too many boxing movie cliches to really shine on its own terms. Its fine for what it is and much better than it might have been, but never is it genuinely great.