The Ecstasy and the Agony


Liam McGrath’s doc Southpaw focuses on light-welter Irish boxer Francis Barrett, the piercingly modest and Wahlberg-mugged Galway teen who at 19 qualified for the Olympics and fought in Atlanta in ’96. Francis’s handicaps are formidable: Not only is he diminutive and short-armed (his same-weight-class opponents often loom over him), but he’s a Traveller, having grown up in a trailer park with no electricity or plumbing, and with the stigma of belonging to what is apparently the most loathed minority in Ireland. Whether Barrett’s Traveller clan is of actual Rom descent or tied to the “lifestyle” (as it’s called) is not clear, but for Barrett there was some ambivalence in carrying the flag at the Atlanta ceremonies for, as an Irish journalist puts it, “the only country in the world that would discriminate against him.”

McGrath’s movie is simple and kind (and, thankfully, not shot on video but on lovely Super 16), gracefully providing us with the reality of up-and-coming boxing: five-round fights, all-important scores, no knockouts. (Someone attached subtitles as well, and they’re totally extraneous.) Barrett’s trajectory is exciting, but his tribe is hilariously, dryly Irish about the experience—when Francie trounces his first Brazilian opponent in Atlanta, the crowds back home barely manage to crack a smile. (McGrath’s camera obviously stiffened everyone up, but there are scores of powerful goodbyes and thank-yous in which the Barretts and Francie’s coach Chick Gillen cannot bring themselves to show emotion at all.) When Francie finally loses in Atlanta, it’s as if the home front knew not to get too excited, and were privately thankful that further demonstrations would not be necessary.

But what price glory? Whatever the cost, it’s a debt unpaid by the platoon of guileless hacks who assembled Price of Glory—not that the title or ads are fooling anyone. (“For every dream there is a sacrifice”—guess whose?) An exasperating ordeal by cliché and schmaltz, Carlos Avila’s Chicano Rocky saga begins in a punch-drunk stumble: Failed boxer Arturo (Jimmy Smits) bullies his three prepubescent sons into the ring, and we’re subjected to a symphonically hallowed montage of their training that would shame John Avildsen. The three sons grow up (to be stoic Jon Seda, testy Clifton Collins Jr., and oaken Ernesto Hernandez) and get caught in a variety of mild conflicts with their glowering papa (so ill-conceived as a character he launches into hot-headed tirades for no apparent reason) on their way to tragedy or title fights or both.

Phil Berger, a former New York Times sportswriter, wrote the script, but the boxing in the movie is vintage-’80s crap—the winners hit, the unguarded losers get hit, and all of the boys’ nasty opponents are balding—and the rise and fall of attempted dramatic action suggests tectonic-plate movement. Contrived and contrived sloppily, this self-adoring soap even manages to make its all-Hispanic cast seem unconvincing—except for Seda, everyone sounds as if they learned their accents from watching The Perez Family.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 4, 2000

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