Film topics are cyclical, of course, and boxing movies are currently enjoying their return to the spotlight. Or maybe "enjoying" is too strong a word. Despite the recent number of fighting tales -- Play It to the Bone, The Hurricane, On the Ropes, Knockout, Price of Glory -- not one of these films has been a financial knockout. Yet the trend continues. Girlfight wowed them at Sundance, and this week we get the documentary Southpaw. The film, in keeping with the current trend of stuffing every single ethnicity-gender combination conceivable into boxing flicks -- Southern white and Latino male has-beens, black male, black female and male, Latino female, and Latino male, respectively -- moves on to that long-forgotten (cinematically, anyway) strain of pugilist: the lightweight Irish scrapper.
Ireland has been mythologized as a friendly place, but as one character in Southpaw puts it, "We're as hard and as brutally racist as anywhere else on earth." The Irish population is about 99 percent white; the victims of the racism in question are the Travellers, a nomadic low-to-zero-income people who live in caravans, generally on special government-owned sites. In U.S. terms, think of a cross between Gypsies and the stereotypical trailer-park resident. As ever, the downtrodden minority often produces the best boxers, and so it is in Ireland with Francis Barrett, a feisty 19-year-old who goes from an overcrowded caravan to the Olympic games in Atlanta, where he carries the flag for his country.
Moving from poverty to fame has been the theme of most boxing movies, well before Sylvester Stallone tied on the gloves, and, as many times as we've seen it before, it still usually works. Here, though, it's a you-had-to-be-there affair. Southpaw suffers from its having been immediately preceded by so many other films on the subject, including the masterful Oscar-nominated On the Ropes. Unlike that film, Southpaw doesn't really give us a feel for what's at stake. Francis' very Irish attitude of taking everything with a smile, even when he's been the victim of brutal poverty and racism, makes it hard to care for him, since director Liam McGrath never cracks the surface of his subject's amicability. Francis lost a match? Never mind, shrug it off; there's always another chance. The subject of race is interesting, especially when a controversy develops over whether it's appropriate for a Traveller to carry the Irish flag at the Olympics, but all we are shown of this is some newspaper headlines. How about clips of TV or radio commentators trying to justify their racism? Or actual images, rather than one secondhand account, of people spitting on or otherwise disparaging Francis and his people?
Any boxing movie, real or fictional, must rely to varying degrees on footage of in-ring action, and it is here that the viewer is slighted the most. Francis' matches are generally shown in short clips, the most unforgivable of which is the ostensible climax, in which Francis goes for the British championship. Not only is a good portion of the action shown in slo-mo as Eydie Gorme(!) sings on the soundtrack, but McGrath actually pulls out to a wide shot of the arena during the concluding 30 seconds of the bout. True, most of the matches here are won or lost on points anyway, but any studio director who failed to focus on the participants during the concluding seconds of a boxing match would be hastily reprimanded, unless he had a damn good reason. None is evident here.
Following the British championship match, Francis reaches a key decision point, which in a drama would signal the end of the second act. Will he shoot for the Olympics again, and thus abandon longtime trainer Chick Gillen, who's old and doesn't like to travel? Or will he stay in Ireland and work to improve the image of the Travellers? Perhaps McGrath should've waited a little longer to complete the film, for the second Francis makes his decision, the movie is over, with a title card telling us what he's preparing to do. It's as if Rocky had ended simply with the knowledge that the protagonist had been granted a shot at Apollo Creed. A case could be made that this movie is not about the sport but about the man, although even if that's the case, we still need more. When Francis marries his girlfriend of four years, there's hardly any payoff, because we haven't so much as heard his girlfriend speak on camera (nor do we subsequently, save maybe one or two words). The only insights we get as to his character are from those who analyze his boxing technique. Even when he becomes a father, we aren't given any idea what kind of a parent he is.
It seems a shame to fault Southpaw too greatly, given that Francis' story is inspirational, and as athletes go he certainly qualifies as a role model. And there's nothing particularly wrong with what we see; it's just that there isn't enough of it. And be forewarned: The rural Irish accents may be incomprehensible to viewers who aren't accustomed to them.
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