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With: Francis Barrett, Chick Gillen
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Liam McGrath
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 79
Date: 03/19/1999

Southpaw (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fighting the Good Fight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Boxing has always made for great cinema. You've got two guys who don't talk and who pound the stuffing out of one another. They exist in a ring with ropes on all four sides, easily defining the space on a two-dimensional screen. There is darkness all around them. Sometimes you can see a few faces peering out, but mostly it's just these two men in a dark arena, going head-to-head. Many great movies have been made about boxing using these simple and potent images: Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), Rocky (1976), and Raging Bull (1980), just to name a few. Not to mention Charlie Chaplin's brilliant boxing sequence in City Lights (1931). Then there are the boxing documentaries like When We Were Kings (1996) and On the Ropes (1999), both Oscar nominees.

Strangely, it doesn't matter a whit whether a match is fiction or non-fiction. A fight has the same resonance. To that end, the new documentary Southpaw has some great fight sequences in it that make it work, but somehow the rest of the movie isn�t as interesting.

Part of the Shooting Gallery series, Southpaw concerns an Irish fighter named Francis Barrett who is poor and lives in a trailer park (he's called a "traveler"). All the kids from the trailer park train to be boxers, but Francis is the first to really get a shot and makes it to the Olympics. The film starts out as any other fight film, with mental and physical training for the big match. Then, about 1/2 hour into the story, Francis loses his second Olympic fight, and he has to come home. For the rest of the running time (only 79 minutes, total) Francis wins a few fights and loses a few fights as he tries for various English and Irish boxing titles.

The problem with this is that even documentaries have to tell a story of some kind, and the random series of fights that Southpaw gives us don't feel connected. The movie seemingly stops when the director runs out of film. There is no beginning, middle, or ending. Francis doesn't win the title, nor does it feel like his life is over. There must be more to the story that we don't know about.

And yet the movie is gripping for short bursts of time when Francis is in the ring. His lower class Irish blood boils and you get a buzz from his power. He reminded me several times of John Wayne's character from The Quiet Man who kills a man in the ring and returns to Ireland to hide and forget. It also reminded me of Rocky, about a boxer who gets his shot at the big time and loses, but appreciates that he got there at all.

But if you're going to see a documentary about boxing, I would recommend On the Ropes first. It tells little stories about people's lives. It has ups and downs, beginnings and endings. It's gritty as hell and amazing to watch. Southpaw only has a fraction of that power.

I suppose we'll have to tune in to this summer's Olympics to see if Francis makes it back or not. It's too bad the movie couldn't have provided that information for us. As a documentary, that was part of its job.

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