“The Fighter” (2010)
If it seems that Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) lacks a personality, it’s because the rest of his family has enough personality to go around. There are moments during David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” that we even forget the movie is supposed to be about Micky. He’s a fighter all right, fighting in the world of professional boxing but also fighting above the influence of his boisterous family members including his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), his seven sisters and his older brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). Mark Wahlberg in the lead role does his character justice; there is strength in his quiet, reserved and seemingly impersonal performance. Sure he’s passive but in his passivity he presents the core of his character’s predicament: here’s a family so hyped up to speak for him they don’t let him speak for himself. His struggle is finding his own voice.
The movie is embedded in the American working class of Lowell, Massachusetts to tell the true story of Micky Ward. It’s 1993, and we’re placed in this sagging and worn down industrial town that is desperate for news and stricken with unemployment. Dicky Eklund is a local legend for the 15 minutes of fame he received back in the 80s when he beat down Sugar Ray Leonard in a boxing match. Or did Sugar Ray trip? It’s a controversy that keeps the bruised underdog legend of Lowell alive. Dicky swears there’s a documentary being made about his inevitable boxing comeback, but the cameras are following him for a different reason: his inevitable downfall.
Christian Bale is nothing short of phenomenal as the crack-addicted Dicky. We don’t know he’s a drug addict right away, but we realize something is wrong with him. His eyes bulge out of his head and dart around wildly, and his grin looks like something carved into a jack-o-lantern. We can tell he’s an intelligent and skilled man, but it’s all in decay now. Bale conquers the man’s psychological and physical challenges and portrays them with ease.
Then there’s their mother Alice who serves as Micky’s manager who wants to bring him to the top and get him the best matches, but more often than not, it is she and Dicky as Micky’s trainer that are unintentionally holding him back from success. Micky trying to tear away from his family, though, his blood, that’s not going to happen. Melissa Leo is astounding as the chain smoking chatterbox mother who is a bit of a nightmare resembling the likes of Mo’Nique from “Precious” and Barbara Hershey from “Black Swan.” Unwittingly aggressive and overprotective.
When another woman, Charlene (Amy Adams), a fiery bartender, steps into Micky’s life over his mother, that’s when things get ugly. The family becomes divided. Micky with Charlene and his soft-spoken but protective father (Jack McGee) against his hotheaded mother and brother. Amy Adams is cast against type here as we’re used to seeing her playing the good girl. In a film full of throwing punches, she lands some of the heaviest blows when it comes to swinging her fists.
“The Fighter” is expertly cast, and the performances are all around outstanding making this a rousing ensemble piece. The best scenes are when these characters are all together butting heads like bulls. David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees”) directs with a manic energy flipping rapidly from scene to scene. And while the movie is more exciting when it’s outside of the ring, the fighting sequences are shot well in a grainy television style.
This is a movie that is more powerful in individual scenes than as a whole perhaps due to its confinement to the conventions of its genre. This is a sports movie about an underdog rising up in the world of boxing. It’s a low-grade “Rocky.” We’ve seen it before. For the most part, though, before that crowd-pleasing climactic knockout, Russell avoids the conventions and marks “The Fighter” as a solidly offbeat sports movie rather than the more typical one it turns out to be.