Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson
Story by Tamasy, Johnson and Keith Dorrington
The Fighter isn’t really about boxing any more than any genre movie that supersedes its
tropes is about that genre. The familiar structure becomes a channel by which characters
live and breathe and something is said about the human condition. I’d say that here what’s being said
is something about hope and family.
Based on a true story, they say, of half-brothers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, excellent and understated) and Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale, very good—though at times is Acting with a Capital “A”). Ecklund, the elder, was a boxer in the ’70s. He once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, as he’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. Now he coaches his little brother, Micky, though Micky’s having a tough go of it in the ring, fighting boxers who are bigger than he is, better than he is, as he suffers under the poor management of his mother Alice (Melissa Leo, a white-trash queen) and Dickie’s inconsistency.
Dickie, you see, is a crack addict, and when we meet the brothers, big shots in their Lowell, Mass. neighbourhood, they’re being followed by an HBO documentary crew that seems to be there to chronicle Dickie’s efforts to help his brother get a title shot. There’s a great moment of Micky in the street, with Dickie shadowboxing from outside the frame, first on the left side, then on the right.
From there, we’re in it, and at no time does your attention waver. Just when you think the film is going to slip into some genre trap, it dekes out, it dodges and weaves. Amy Adams is a revelation as Charlene, a bartender who had her own dreams of athletic achievement but let them slip away. She believes in Micky’s chances as success, that even over 30 he still might have it in front of him. I liked her so much I wish we saw more of her.
Wahlberg spent years developing this property, and you can see it in his performance, both physically and emotionally. He is this guy, who’s been propped up by his hyper-kinetic brother and domineering mother and seven miserable sisters for years, and has been beaten so badly he wonders if maybe there’s another way to do things.
At times, Bale seems like he’s acting in another movie next to the subtle work Wahlberg is doing. But Bale is playing a junkie, so a certain compulsive energy is called for. Overall, the differences in acting styles I think is a bit of a liability to the film, though it doesn’t diminish either performance individually. I was reminded somewhat of Phil Joanou’s underrated gangster movie State of Grace, with Sean Penn and Gary Oldman. Oldman was the twitchy druggie, Penn the calm one. But Penn’s also a method guy, so I think it worked a little better.
When things come together in the third act, the emotional heft of the film is true and unerring, from all involved. And for a so-called “boxing movie,” there isn’t much boxing, actually. One brief bout in the first reel, then more in the end. But the meat of the movie is the character relationships outside the ring, the way this dysfunctional family has operated for years and even when things change, some things stay the same. There’s still support and love and respect, even after disagreements, even after plates are broken and pots and pans flung and people go to jail.
I wonder what the actual family depicted in this picture feels about how they appear. The seven sisters are more obnoxious than Adam Sandler’s siblings in Punch Drunk Love.