An old-school boxing drama with a stellar cast and some funny, heartrending moments, David O Russell’s The Fighter is a conventional yet engrossing, feel-good film about the common man’s struggle to overcome his challenges and reach the top, regardless of the fact those challenges arise from his nearest and dearest. Get ready for a whole load of fighting and boxing and I mean fighting and boxing away from the ring!
Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, the working-class grafter from Lowell, Massuchusetts trying to make something of himself in the boxing arena, but regarded only as a “stepping stone” for other boxers. His problem is two-fold, first his trainer is his consistently dawdling, crack-addict brother, the so-called “Pride of Lowell” Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer who beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978. Then there’s his manager – his domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who believes Micky will only make it to the top with the assistance of her Dicky. Of course Micky also has the support of his seven, scary, freaky-haired sisters and his plagued father (clearly Alice wears the trousers in that relationship), George (Jack McGee). After a heavy, embarrassing knockout by a fighter who was a weight grade above him, Micky considers giving up the sport. It is only when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams) – a feisty, former college dropout, now bargirl, that she makes him realize he can succeed, but without Alice and Dicky, who are only trying to control Micky and are wasting his capacities in the ring.
The major strength of this movie is the wealth of acting talent on parade. Of course we have to start off with the loudest performance of the bunch – Christian Bale! To put it simply, Bale is fucking dynamite as the skittish, weary-eyed, window-leaping, happy-go-lucky prizefighting boxer turned crack-hound. His Dicky is extraordinary, fringing from lively and charismatic, a guy you would love to accompany to an afternoon beer, to bordering on utterly insane. In one scene he’s smoking crack in a crackhouse, then realizing he’s late for training with Micky, he legs it to the gym with this incredible, “beyond belief”, frenzied energy and enthusiasm. What he does superbly is bring charm and poignance to the character without ever surrendering Dicky’s tremendous virility. And once again Bale’s gone all out for his role, losing 30 pounds, engaging in lengthy boxing training and growing the bold patch. Christian Bale is considered one of the greatest actors never to win an Oscar. Well, so far he’s shattered the whole awards circuit picking up the Critics Choice award, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Supporting Actor. Given what he has accomplished with this dynamic, stirring performance – surely he has to take home the BAFTA and then his first Oscar statuette on February 27th.
The other powerhouse performances come from the outstanding Melissa Leo and the ever-versatile Amy Adams. Leo is brutal as Alice; pigheaded and cohesive with her baffling headdress, she knows what’s best for Micky and no one is going to tell her what to do. Although the fiery matriarch of the Ward/ Eklund clan, Alice has many flaws and at times can’t prevent herself from displaying her fragile side. As for her counterpart, Adams is engrossing as Charlene – the tigerish, sharp-tongued girlfriend of Micky. She’s played dizzy (Junebug), she’s played naive and vulnerable (Doubt), hell, she’s even played a princess (Enchanted) and now with her “I’ll rip that nasty hair right out of your fucking head” Charlene, she can now add rugged and piercing to her accomplished body of work.
With so many great displays from the supporting cast, the story would never have worked unless for Mark Wahlberg’s cool, quiet performance at the heart of the whole drama. Wahlberg is concrete in the lead role, playing Micky with sincerity and a genuine verve. Therefore we sympathize with Micky’s personal struggles and we want him to overcome this adversity and reach the top of the boxing arena. Mark Wahlberg in fact started developing The Fighter back in 2005, this was actually his dream role, having been brought up in Massachusetts and in a big family like Micky, and here he excels pulling off one of his most admirable performances since The Departed.
Director David O Russell also deserves credit for infusing a humanness into the story. Instead of going all out with flashy camera set ups and snazzy lighting he chooses to show the rough, bedraggled, working-class town of Lowell for what it is, injecting excitement and creating an eloquent portrait of ground level life into the story but never at all compromising its scratchy, crumbling, broken-down aesthetic. Essentially, with his crisp and unwavering direction what you have is a solid, toned-down platform for the actors to immerse and propel themselves in their respective roles. Reinforce this with a series of boxing sequences, which are sharply choreographed and meticulously captured, with a brilliant and rich authenticity and there is a fascinating story amongst the so-called boxing cliche. Whether this is enough evidence for O Russell’s merit of an Oscar nomination, I’m not entirely convinced.
However, I also believe screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson deserve a mention for crafting a sharp and yet compelling script, that manages to balance emotional content with some laugh-out-loud comedic moments. The story is packed with dramatic texture – family dysfunction, a ruthless drug habit and competitive ambition, yet amidst all of this, there are some genuinely hilarious moments, and going into the film I didn’t realize how crucial this was for grounding the story.
There’s this whole debate about whether The Fighter is just another cliche of the whole fairytale, underdog story of man-overcomes-all-adversity-to-become-champion-of-his-sphere. Well, yes it is has all the conventions of a typical boxing movie, it’s about the common, working-class guy who is struggling to make ends meat and is just a “stepping stone” for other fighters, there are people around him preventing him from succeeding and all he deserves is a real shot at the title! I think a more important question to ask is are you invested in the character and if so if you want him to win then does the cliche really matter so much? With each actor absorbing themselves in their roles, the answer is no it doesn’t matter so much because we want Micky to overthrow his obstacles and we want him to conquer his goals.
Also what struck me about the movie was that although it is a boxing movie, most of Micky’s fights are in the third act of the film. Most of the fighting is outside the ring and Micky isn’t the only one fighting, Charlene, Alice and Dicky all have their own personal fights. Dicky is trying to clean up his crack addiction for the sake of his son and the sake of his brother’s title challenges; and Alice is trying to maintain her management of Micky regardless of the fact his boxing has improved under the supervision of police officer Mickey O’Keefe, boxing promoter Sal and his father George Ward. Meanwhile, as Charlene enters the Ward/Eklund realm, she immediately realizes how much of a negative impact his family is having on his competitive chances and her crusade is to help him try to regain his confidence and focus. There’s a great line in the movie where Micky tells Charlene, Dicky and Alice “I’m the one fighting not you, not you and not you” but the truth is they all have their own personal battles, which they need to put aside and find a common ground, which is in the best of interest of Micky, and effectually this is the ultimate fight of the movie.
Recently The Fighter received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Writing Written Driectly For The Screen. Although it is likely to miss out on Best Picture (Has to be either The Social Network or The King’s Speech), it will definitely receive honours for its supporting performances (notably Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) which is the least it deserves. In the end, The Fighter doesn’t quite flee from the cliche of feel-good boxing romp; yet, striking a fine balance between drama, tone and comedy, and with some absolutely unforgettable scenes and an acting ensemble right at the top of their game, it makes for an enjoyable, compelling drama, that mesmerizes right until the very end.
Trailer for The Fighter: