Mark Wahlberg fights battles in and out of the ring in David O. Russell’s boxing drama.
As Stallone’s Rocky did 35 years before it, The Fighter has gone in to the awards season as underdog and risen to become a significant contender. Both are tales of an aging boxer from an impoverished background suddenly given a belated opportunity to take a shot at the title, spurred on by a blossoming romance. And just as Rocky’s comeback inspired hope in those around him, bringing with it a welcome wave of optimism to an America worn down by Vietnam and Watergate, The Fighter similarly charts the fall and rise of a boxer whose fortune in the ring offers hope to his family and the local community. However, unlike Rocky, The Fighter is based on real people and real events. The anomaly in all this is that a film with such a conventional story should come from David O. Russell, who last directed I Heart Huckabees in 2004, but perhaps remains best known for the 1999 satirical Gulf War caper Three Kings. One wonders what attracted him to a project that, on the surface at least, has been done many times before?
Dicky Eklund (Oscar-nominated Christian Bale) is a local legend in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, for having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring back in 1978, though he ultimately failed to win the match. Since then, when he’s not feeding his addiction to crack, he helps coach his brother and fellow boxer Micky Ward (Oscar-omitted Mark Wahlberg), whose own career is languishing after several years of indifferent management by his mother (Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo). After the twin blows of a crushing defeat in the ring and Dicky’s imprisonment, Micky contemplates taking up a contract in Las Vegas away from his family. In this line of thinking he is encouraged by Charlene (Oscar-nominated Amy Adams), a local barmaid with whom Micky strikes up a tentative relationship, despite the hostile reaction of his numerous sisters.
The film kicks off with a camera crew following Dicky around, apparently filming his life for a forthcoming HBO documentary about his career and potential comeback, though it becomes clear that this is not their brief at all. The fly-on-the-wall camerawork helps to quickly ground the real-life story, bringing a strong sense of time and place as the two brothers show the crew around their working-class neighbourhood (John G. Avildsen pulled the same trick in Rocky, spending as much time getting to know Balboa’s Philadelphia community as it did in the ring). The story later splinters, with Dicky’s descent in to prison forming one narrative prong, complementing Micky’s attempts to resurrect his career.
Such is the strength of Bale’s presence that he appears to share an equal amount of screen time as Wahlberg. In truth The Fighter is just as much Dicky’s tale as Micky’s, and in many ways Dicky is the more interesting character, if much less likeable. He slowly becomes more sympathetic; when he’s listening to the TV commentary on Micky’s comeback fight from inside prison down the telephone line to his mother, you sense a corner has been turned in his life. Micky on the other hand doesn’t seem to change much at all, except for a greater willingness to stand up to his domineering family. The film’s biggest weakness is the borderline caricature that are Micky’s umpteen sisters – all of them single, over 40, horrifically ugly and predisposed to beating unconscious any girl who so much as looks at their younger brother. Whether this part of the story is true or not I couldn’t say, but they feel like refugees from an Adam Sandler comedy.
Despite his track record, Russell doesn’t do anything to revolutionise the Uplifting Sports Movie sub-genre, but then it didn’t need to be flashy or eye-catching. He instead allows the story to unfold in a low-key way, and lets the tension gradually grow towards an exciting finish. The boxing scenes themselves are relatively few and far between, yet suitably visceral. Wahlberg delivers a sympathetic performance, though no-one could accuse him of massively extending his range here. He does help to anchor the story though, while Bale’s more extravagant turn, gaunt and glassy-eyed, as the feckless and perpetually unreliable Dicky is the film’s chief strength. Adams finds a perfect balance between cute and defiant as Micky’s strong-willed squeeze, while Leo is excellent as his appalling mother. It’s an enjoyable piece of work altogether, very good even – just don’t expect to see anything new.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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