The Fighter (2010): United States – directed by David O. Russell
Rated R by the MPAA – contains boxing violence, strong language, some sexual content
The Fighter is a passion project, on a number of levels. Mark Wahlberg stuck with it for years, training on the sets of his other films until financing and a director could be finalized. Darren Aronofsky, granted an executive producer credit, was attached to direct before moving on to complete Black Swan [review here]. David O. Russell stepped in, and managed to make Wahlberg’s passion project into a worthy film. And, even if it is simple in its approach and execution, it is rousing, moving, and engaging.
Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a boxer with a host of problems. His recent bouts have been used as stepping stones for other up and coming boxers, and he’s still waiting for his chance. His brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), and mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), have been his trainer and manager respectively. They’ve been responsible for all his success, and all his failure.
Dicky, in particular, has been a failure. An HBO film crew follows him around in many of the opening scenes. Dicky believes they are documenting his comeback, fourteen years after he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and put Lowell, Massachusetts, on the map. The producers are clear that they’re making a documentary on crack addiction.
Dicky’s problems with drugs involve run-ins with the law. Mickey O’Keefe (perfectly at home playing himself) knows this all too well, as he’s a local law enforcer and a friend of the family. O’Keefe is also a trainer, and repeatedly urges Ward to move on, past Dicky and Alice, in order to have a legitimate shot. Mickey’s dad, George Ward (Jack McGee) also wants something better for Mickey, knowing that the family isn’t a positive influence.
But family is all Mickey has. There’s Alice, Dickey (who has taught him all he knows about boxing), and a passel of blond sisters, each of them scornful of anyone who has been to college. They are a tight knit family, not unlike those portrayed in other films set in Massachusetts – Conviction [review here], or The Town [review here] – but they are also a burden.
One day George encourages Mickey to ask out the local barmaid, a girl he’s been ogling for years. She’s tough and surly, and an equal match for any of her customers. Her name is Charlene (Amy Adams), and she has to make sure Mickey isn’t married before she’ll go out with him. Her clientele would not be above such behavior. Charlene proves to be another positive influence on Mickey, alongside George and O’Keefe. She, too, realizes the destruction Alice and Dickey bring upon Mickey and his career, and after one fateful fight she, George, and O’Keefe agree to train and manage Mickey as long as he stops seeking help from his other family. It helps, too, that Dicky’s in jail.
Mickey’s rise to the top is inspiring, and all the more so because it is clear how much he depends on his family. It may not be an original idea for a film, but it’s a true story. A final reconciliation is particularly moving, and Mickey’s successful boxing matches are more powerful because of it.
The Fighter is an actor’s film, first and foremost. It is possibly the second best-acted film of the year, following The King’s Speech [review here]. Wahlberg holds his own as Mickey, a person he obsessed over for years before the film was made. More impressive still is Adams, playing a rough woman trying to make it through life. Her tenderness and compassion for Mickey manages to realistically co-exist with her fiery temper when faced with his sisters, and minimal make-up emphasizes her natural beauty and fragility. She also proves she can play tough and sexy, in a departure from some of her other outstanding acting efforts. Leo is also remarkable, imbuing Alice with a verve that leaves an immediate impression on the viewer. Bale, however, is the most outstanding. His crack-addicted Dicky is remarkable, and he often reminds one of a bird, glancing to and fro constantly. He talks, mumbles, incessantly. He is bug-eyed and gaunt, almost unrecognizable. This is Bale’s greatest talent, and he stands among the best of this generation at utterly occupying a character. It is frightening.
Russell’s direction is surprisingly straightforward. There are few stylistic flourishes, as befits a straightforward boxing drama. The televised matches are shot digitally, it appears, in an effort to replicate the actual television footage. Otherwise, Russell lets his actors carry the film, and they succeed. The Fighter doesn’t aim to be particularly innovative or original, but it successfully tells the story of Mickey Ward’s comeback run and is worth the time of any boxing or acting fan.