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The Fighter (2010) ****

December 16, 2010

 

written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, & Eric Johnson
produced by: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Ryan Kavanaugh, Mark Wahlberg, Dorothy Aufiero, & Paul Tamasy
directed by: David O. Russell
rated R (for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality)
114 min.
U.S. release date: December 10, 2010 (limited), December 17, 2010 (wide)
 
 
The “based on a true story” sports biopic has been around forever with a couple boxing movies coming out every five or so years. Each film has employed familiar conventions of either an underdog who has nothing to lose or a one-time champ now down-on-his-luck. Here is a real and raw look at both.  It’s a story about the dreams and failures of two working class half-brothers in Lowell, Massachusetts that rises above any standard genre trappings thanks to excellent directing and a superb cast . The makers of “The Fighter” understand that the best boxing films show us that the real blood and sweat happens outside the ring.
 
The film opens with a gaunt and hyperactive figure sitting on a couch, talking to a camera. He is Dicky Eklund (a mesmerizing Christian Bale), known as “The Pride of Lowell” for going toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard back in the day. We see him now in the mid 1990’s, his squirrely-eyes surrounded by a bony face and pursed lips. Approaching forty, he has his damaging crack cocaine addiction to blame for ending his glory days, yet he is delusional if thinks his comeback is around the corner. Dicky’s agreed to let a crew of HBO filmmakers follow him around for a documentary, thinking it will be about his former fighting career. Little does he know their focus is crack addiction, which will eventually become a 1995 film that will eventually be called “High on Crack Street”
 
 
 

FIGHTER Still 1

 
  
Besides himself and crack, Dicky’s other obsession is his little brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg), who is a good enough fighter in his own right but lacks the manic finesse Dicky had. One of Micky’s biggest problems is confidence. He continues to allow himself to be used as a “stepping stone” for more promising fighters, and he’s starting to grow weary of it. He’s tired of taking fights where he’s outmatched and he knows he ain’t gettin’ any younger.
 
But every fighter has an Achilles heal and Micky’s is his toxic family. Having the unreliable Dicky as his trainer has hurt him more than help him. Then there’s his mother, Alice (the amazing Melissa Leo), a venomous snake who considers herself Micky’s manager, yet all she does is smoke, scream, and manipulate her way through a haze of self-absorbed bitterness. Rounding out the rest of the women in Micky’s family are his seven acerbic sisters (I’m pretty sure they are half-sisters too) who are seldom seen apart and are in just about every family scene. They are a dangerously clueless gaggle of trash that are collectively ready with a stink eye or a stabbingly snide remark. Their depiction, bordering on broad comedy, is both stunning and scary as to how real they actually are.  
 
The other men in Micky’s life are too quiet or passive-aggressive to rise above all the estrogen and make a difference. His father, George (a great Jack McGee), while exasperated, knows that Micky is seldom heard by Alice or Dicky and sees the growing frustration in his son. Also in Micky’s corner is local Lowell police officer, Mickey O’ Keefe (played by Mickey O’ Keefe, former boxer and trainer to real-life Mickey), who at first helps train Micky during the times Dicky is off in crackland, eventually becoming his full-time trainer once Micky starts to get more gigs. 
 
 
 

FIGHTER Still 3

 
 
Micky knows he has to make some changes in his life. Quit boxing altogether or take it in another direction completely. Meeting college dropout and local barkeeper, Charlene (Amy Adams), helps fuel that change. She doesn’t care how many fights he’s lost. She sees through his battered exterior and helps him find his heart, his own will, and in turn, his confidence. Sparks fly when those suffocating family members see Charlene as a threat, rather than a support to Micky. He struggles as he makes steps to break free of his overbearing family as “Irish” Micky Ward sees more opportunities come his way, but at the same time he doesn’t want to leave his family behind. The result is a series of intense career highs and lows among a mess of heartbreaking domestic dysfunction.
 
Bringing the story of these two brothers to the big-screen has been in the works for some time now. The script had seen variations, at one point Darren Aronofsky was set to direct (now he serves as Executive Producer) but one constant presence has remained since day one….Boston born Wahlberg. He was always set to play Micky and it’s clear the role and the movie had become such a labor of love that he became one of the producers too. Wahlberg has never really been out of shape but you can tell he had been physically preparing for the part as well….he had to. I may never have been a huge fan of the guy (his best role was in, “The Departed”) but I like the subtle choices he makes here.
 
Flanked by a volatile family, Wahlberg reigns Micky in knowing that the combo of Bale and Leo is overwhelming enough. Like the method of the pugilist he portrays, he smartly underplays here; allowing the other two to let loose with their own respective tour de force displays. I’ll wager that Wahlberg doesn’t get any nominations for his work here but he deserves some credit for really getting the character, not just playing on a Rocky riff but playing Micky. When we do see his character speak up, it’s with a rattling left hook that tells everyone around him he can’t take it no more.
 
 
 

FIGHTER Still 2

 
  
This is the third time Wahlberg’s hooked up with director Russell (“Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees”) and I can see why. The previous two films showcase some solid work by Wahlberg, so they must work off each other quite well. They both wisely stay away from a stock Cinderella story since they know that the bile we see these characters spew is far removed from fairy tales. Russell delivers a Boston vibe that surpasses what I’ve seen in “The Town” or “Gone Baby Gone” (both great films) in authenticity. While most of that is due to the actors, it helps to have a director at the helm that doesn’t succumb to Hollywood staples.
 
 I”m glad both Matt Damon and Brad Pitt turned down the role of Dicky Eklund. Those viewers who only know Bale as Batman or John Connor may think he’s an over-acting hack here. Those viewers need an education. Like his work in “Harsh Times”, “The Machinist” and “Rescue Dawn”, the man disappears in the role of Dicky. It’s hard to find a trace of Bruce Wayne here and that’s how it should be.What more can you ask for in an actor than to give themselves over entirely to the role they’ve committed too? Bale does just that in a realistic manner. And so does Adams as the feisty girlfriend, who allows Micky into her life and can also hold her own against his mother and his sisters. She has a fun time with the role too, as seen in the moment after Charlene realizes that the movie her and Marty saw on a date (“Bella Époque”) was not their typical choice, ” I had to read the movie!”  Each time Leo and Adams trade spiteful lines is a real treat. Both Bale and Adams are two of the most committed and absorbing actors working today.
 
 
 
 
  
Russell shoots the fight scenes with a punishing lens that has the audience cheering for Micky during that last fight. But if it wasn’t for the time invested in the characters, those boxing scenes would be routine. Instead, we are in the ring and on the sidelines looking in, hoping that Micky makes it another round. Outside the ring, Russell gives us plenty of hard-hitting situations and attitudes (oh, is there ever attitude in this film!) to take in and either embrace or be repulsed. Russell’s only misstep would be the indulgence of popular songs in the film. Hearing Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” crank up when a fight turns around in Micky’s favor is a bit much. But then again the character’s theme song is “Here I Go Again” from Whitesnake, which is kind of fitting.
 
The one part where the music works to the benefit of the scene is when a strung-out Dicky makes light of a sad situation by singing “I Started a Joke” an old Bee Gees tune, in order to cheer up his mother. He starts off and eventually is joined by Leo singing along as if mending their tattered relationship. Fittingly, the song is about someone who has done something horribly wrong, resulting in social alienation.
 
“The Fighter” is a movie where the performances surpass the material. From the four main characters, to all the supporting actors, it’s hard to take your eyes off of any of them. Because of this, we are invested as we spend time on familiar ground. The narrative may be somewhat predictable here but these earnest actors keep your heart pounding throughout. You’ll want to stay seated during the end credits to meet the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund and see just how right Wahlberg and Bale were.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Rolfe permalink
    December 29, 2010 3:30 pm

    This was such a good money from start to finish! I loved it! Every actor & actress was perfect in their roles! Mr. Bale was so magnetic,charismatic,brilliant and deserves an Oscar with out a doubt! He has given countless superb performances since he was a child actor! Empire of the Sun is a masterpiece and little Bale carried the whole epic on his back! He is so way overdue for an Oscar in my opinion! Bale make this movie be a standout and Oscar contender!

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