With no shortage of first-class boxing dramas in the last forty years, it seems only fitting that The Fighter join former heavyweight champs Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Hurricane, Cinderella Man, and Ali as a major contender in the ring of motion picture greatness. David O’Russell’s darkly funny and tragic film springs from the ropes this holiday season, boasting some of the year’s standout performances and solidifying its place as a serious contender for award recognition.
The Fighter focuses on 1980s Lowell, Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg takes on the role of the 31-year-old small-town fighter whose quest for success in the ring is hindered by the extreme dysfunction of his family. Completely overshadowing him is older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer under the weight of a severe drug addiction. He spends his time training Micky and participates in a ‘real-life’ documentary in development by HBO that he thinks is chronicling his big comeback—Dicky did knock Sugar Ray Leonard down once upon a time (or so he believes). Micky’s mother (Melissa Leo) acts as his manager, finding big fights to put her son on the map—fights that nearly land him in a coffin. With her line-up of crazy sisters to back her up, Micky’s mother and most of his family fail to realize how ignorant they are of the man’s own desires and goals. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a local bartender who sees potential in Micky and the madness of those closest to him holding him back from greatness. When she begins a relationship with him, Micky starts to understand from an outside perspective just how buried he is and decides to seek out new management and training, a choice that will hopefully lead him to a shot at the Welterweight title. In the process it may cost him the only life he’s ever known and the only family he’s ever had.
Luckily Director O’Russell knows not to let The Fighter remain yet another underdog boxing story—it is exactly that to be sure—but the film keeps its eyes fixated on the emotional strings and hardships tied between Micky and his family. This isn’t a movie about ‘boxing’, it’s a film about a boxer and the people enveloping his existence. We follow these characters and believe them wholeheartedly, partly because they are so well-acted, and also partly because they are based on truth. In many ways I can understand the criticism of Micky’s character being completely overshadowed and dull in comparison to the supporting characters around him, but I believe that’s the point of the story. Eventually Charlene becomes exactly what Micky’s family became, and Micky can’t please anybody because no one wants to let him make his own decisions in life. Micky is constantly overlooked and left unheard while everyone else directs his path. Mark Wahlberg captures the stress of his character beat for beat, and because he isn’t portraying a showy and rigorous character as attention-hogging as Bale or Leo, it doesn’t make him any less powerful. Wahlberg’s dedication to the role and to making sure this movie was produced shows clearly.
Christian Bale lights a fire hard to extinguish. Once he enters the film from the get-go he dominates his every scene. Bale has been known to be completely consumed by the characters he plays, and he plays Dicky Eklund as though it’s the performance of his career. Again shedding the poundage as he did in The Machinist years back, Bale portrays Dicky as consciously lost as can be. The performance wreaks of despair and hilarity in equal measure, and I mean that as a compliment. Much of The Fighter comes across surprisingly and overwhelmingly darkly comical, but I suppose this is a David O’Russell film. Bale seems perfectly tuned to the tone of the film and is able to deliver a very complex performance that the Academy will be hard pressed to dismiss. And don’t forget about former nominee Melissa Leo as Micky’s dominating, guilt-tripping mother either—she’s as engulfed as Bale and as equally heartbreaking.
The Fighter has a lot to say to audiences. It is extremely dark, comical, heartbreaking, gritty, exciting and often painful—a grab-bag of emotional drama. You come away from a movie like this rooting for the protagonist and yet feeling extremely thankful you didn’t endure his situation (or come from a family as dysfunctional as his). Many viewers may be turned away from the harshness of some of the material on display here, but this is Micky’s story and O’Russell serves it up for all it’s worth and delivers a brutal knockout that had me floored.
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