A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010
2010, R, 114 mins.
2010, R, 114 mins.
Micky: Mark Wahlberg /
Dicky: Christian Bale /
Alice: Melissa Leo /
Charlene: Amy Adams /
Mickey O'Keefe: Himself /
George: Jack McGee /
Sugar Ray Leonard: Himself
O. Russell’s THE FIGHTER is a pugilist drama that finds a medium
between RAGING BULL and the ROCKY
series. Like Martin
Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece, THE FIGHTER has a sense of gritty veracity with its lively working class environments and characters
and its personas are presented with a harsh and unflinching immediacy.
Like the ROCKY films, THE FIGHTER’s story concerns a lowly,
down-on-his-luck boxing underdog that must overcome immense personal odds
to reclaim his dignity and climatically rise to the occasion and succeed
in the end for final victory.
greatly appreciated the one hemisphere of THE FIGHTER – based on a true
story - that hones in on its Lowell, Massachusetts-born and living blue
collar men and women with a precision and nuance that made films like GONE
BABY GONE and THE TOWN drip with
so much atmosphere and detail. THE
FIGHTER also does a virtuoso job of focusing on a very atypical and
dysfunctional boxing family, one that is almost obscenely prideful and
guarded of their Irish-Catholic legacy.
This all gives the film a starling sense of immersion;
the characters, their issues, and the world they populate have a tactile
quality that’s unmistakable.
other hemisphere, alas, does not rise to the occasion as much as
the aforementioned one does. THE
FIGHTER suffers from nagging familiarity with its story trajectory and
themes, so much so that it lacks the freshness and originality of its
characters. We’ve seen so
many countless inspirational underdog sports stories of a rags-to-riches
heroes before – highlighting the frustrating failures that segue into the
adrenaline-induced successes – that we’ve become sort of emotionally
numb to them. THE FIGHTER’S
“against-all-odds” narrative does not really tread any new ground for
the genre, which holds it back from greatness.
course, before you all cry foul, the film is based on a “true story”
and there is not much room, per se, when it comes to re-imagining recent
history, but THE FIGHTER could have at least found and more unique and
revitalizing follow-through. The
biographical film chronicles the fall and rise of “Irish” Micky (no
“e”) Ward, a now retired junior welterweight professional boxer and a
former Massachusetts born WBU champion perhaps best known for his battles against the late Arturo Gatti (which the film never deals with).
Micky won his first 14 fights as a pro, but his career hit major
roadblocks after losing four straight contests in the early 1990’s,
after which he took a hiatus from the boxing world and hit proverbial rock
FIGHTER deals with Micky Ward at this point in his life.
Interestingly, the film does not open with him, but rather on a
shot of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), during which an HBO
camera crew is following his every move.
Dicky thinks that they are covering a potential comeback into the
ring for him: he was, after all, a professional fighter like his brother
(known as the “Pride of Lowell”) that even went the distance against
Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, knocking him down to the canvas at one point
(or…did he?). After getting
his 15 minutes of fame and attention in his match against Leonard, Dicky
found his career floundering and he retired from it in 1985.
His real reason for ending it is most likely his addiction to crake
cocaine: the HBO crew that follows him is actually filming a documentary
called HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL, but the stoned,
ever-prideful, and naïve Dicky still concedes that it’s about his
return to the ring. What
his coming-out-of-retirement seems highly unlikely, Dicky’s family and
surrounding community have gathered to support his little half-brother,
Micky (Mark Wahlberg) who hopes at becoming the next Pride of Lowell.
Micky is a strong, ambitious, and determined brawler, but lacks
common sense and intelligence in and out of the ring.
He has been raised into the sport and his family – including his
supportive father, George (Jack McGee), his devilishly domineering mother,
Alice (Melissa Leo) and a half a dozen f-bomb dropping, verbally abusive,
big haired sisters – have placed expectations on his head that he knows
are daunting. Exasperating
matters are the fact that Dicky is so busy getting his fix
that he often can't show up for Mickey’s training.
lethal combination of Dicky’s drug habits and his family’s
authoritarian ways leads to near-career tragedy for Micky: he finds
himself fighting a man twenty pounds heavier and gets the beating of his
life, which all but shreds Micky’s fragile dignity.
Soon after the fight he decides that a boxing career may not be
worth it, and to complicate his life even further his brother dives
headfirst into a pit of despair: he finds himself on the end of a long
prison sentence for litany of offences, most of which are tied to his
addiction. Realizing that he
must “break” from the soul-crushing roots of his mother and brother,
Micky finds a new “family” of sorts in the form of his recent acquired
Charlene (Amy Adams) and a new trainer and he does find himself on the
receiving end of a string of successful fights that
culminates with a title shot. Yet,
nearing the eve of the match of his life, Micky’s demented brother and
overbearing mother begin to yet again exert their influence and tighten
their squeeze on him, which may cost him the chance of his career, which
is getting quickly running out of chances.
has demonstrated himself to be an articulate - if not a bit
controversial and inconsistent - filmmaker over the years (he
has never really made a film to match his career high work of 1999’s
THREE KINGS, also starring Wahlberg), but he recovers finely here with how
colorfully and convincingly he presents the deeply rooted family unit in THE
FIGHTER. The interesting
angle here is how the brutalizing family – whether directly or
indirectly – both hurts and helps Micky on his path to glory, which
allows for the film to be sort of charmingly oddball and offbeat.
Micky’s family does love him and want the best for him, but their
self-destructive ways metaphorically form a prison around the man at times
and hold him back from springing free.
It is that psychologically convoluted relationship between Micky
and his family that provides much of the resonating soul and energy of THE
performances in particular are incomparably Oscar caliber: The first would
be from the great Melissa Leo as the back-stage mother from hell that sort
of ruthlessly goes to sorted lengths to ensure that she remain the primary
controller of Micky’s destiny. She
is a fast-talking, chain-smoking firecracker as a selfish and wounded
maternal figure that inadvertently causes many of Micky’s failures and not
successes. The other really
surprising performance – the trickiest of the bunch – is from the
usually sweet, bubbly, and adorable Amy Adams, who this time gets to play
street wise, tough as nails, and no-nonsense role. She has the hardest assignment of playing a would-be
obligatory supportive girlfriend role and she infuses it with an
imposing level of harsh emotional honesty and robustness.
She has never been so commanding of a presence in film.
then there is Christian Bale: has there ever been a more fanatically
dedicated and gifted film actor to never win - or be nominated -
for an Oscar? I don’t
think so. Bale has been known for his obsessive extremes as an actor
(he lost 80 pounds for THE MACHINIST
and then gained it back for BATMAN BEGINS
and then lost it again for RESCUE DAWN).
Playing Dicky he once again throws movie star vanity out the window
and physically reduces himself to a mere speck of human being:
Unhealthily thin, hauntingly beady-eyed, perpetually sweaty, and
sporting a receding hairline atop of his sullen and gaunt face, Bale gives
the performance of his career as the dangerous loose cannon Dicky.
Bale has always been known as an actor that occupies the darkest
and most suicidal realm of method performing, but the way he remarkably inhabits the skin of
this peculiarly likeable and manically self-destructive crack addict is a
marvel to behold.
FIGHTER is laced with so much evocative atmosphere and is punctuated by
so many memorable and marvelous performances that it all but highlights
one central problem with the film: Dicky and his mother are so
intrinsically compelling as characters and their arcs are so involving
that they make Micky seem that much more inconsequential as a key aspect
of this film. Wahlberg is a
fine actor when he wants to be (like in BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE
DEPARTED; MAX PAYNE and THE
HAPPENING...not so much), but he is mournfully outclassed by the
likes of Adams, Leo, and Bale here. He
certainly is consistently decent as Micky, but he can play that sort of
quintessential soft-spoken and timid-minded tough guy with an
explosive rage role with little effort on his part. It’s
ironic, but Micky is both a victim in the film and, as a character
surrounded by other more fascinating creations, he is also subverted as
nothing more than a curiosity within his own story.
fight scenes as well, it should be noted, are not really satisfactorily
realized or executed: Russell opts for what appears to be digital
video and a fan/press-box perspective of the mayhem, which seems a bit
jarring and incongruent within the rest of the film (that, and Russell is
far away from forging the battles with the necessary intensity they
require). Also, the central
rise of Micky Ward is not as emotionally involving or transcending as the
story of, say, Jim Braddock in the Depression-era boxing drama CINDERELLA
MAN, where his struggles meant something socially and culturally
more than just winning a title. THE
FIGHTER is a potentially great film trapped in a just-okay body: it
contains exquisitely rendered performances and drips with Irish-Massachusetts
atmosphere, but it’s just too conventional at times to be considered
among the pantheon of 2010’s best efforts.