A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010

THE FIGHTER jjj

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

Directed by David O. Russell / Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson

David 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. 

I 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. 

The 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.   

Of 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 bottom.   

THE 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 a poor delusional sap. 

Since 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. 

The 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 girlfriend, 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. 

Russell 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 FIGHTER. 

Three 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.   

And 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.   

THE 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.  

The 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. 

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