The Fighter

Micky: “Everyone said I could beat him.”

Charlene: “Who’s everyone?”

Micky: “My brother, my mother.”

Between the ultimate stand-up-and-cheer-for-the-underdog Rocky, and one of the most brutally visceral character studies ever in fiction in Raging Bull, one wonders if there’s anything left in the field of the boxing sub-genre to cull. All those since have added precious little to the formula, except Million Dollar Baby, which substituted a female boxer and became a film about the most unusual of friendships. Really, the best boxing films all have one thing in common, and that’s that they’re about character infinitely more than boxing. Even Rocky would be nothing without Stalone’s iconic performance, and who can imagine Raging Bull without DeNiro’s ferocious Jake LaMotta? At its core, The Fighter is another such character study.

The Figher’s leads are a pair of boxing brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts, named Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).  Growing up, Dicky trained Micky, and while the former reached his peak in a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, one which he narrowly lost by decision, the latter has yet to get his shot between his brother being a crack addict and his domineering mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), having her hands full with Dicky and his seven sisters. Shortly after Micky falls in love with a local bar girl named Charlene (Amy Adams), Dicky is arrested and goes to prison for years, resulting in Micky signing with another manager and trainer, and eventually getting a shot at the title. But Dicky’s release from jail soon complicates everything he’s worked for.

Viewing the film on the Rocky/Raging Bull scale, The Fighter attempts to find a middle ground between the two, attempting to capture the authentic impact of the latter, but not maintaining the pitch-black undertone, while keeping it more accessible like the former, but not getting too sentimental and melodramatic. Ultimately, it’s only sporadically successful. Underneath the phenomenal, across-the-board, performances is a blandly formulaic script that hits every predictable button with very few surprises to be found anywhere. The film goes through all of the typical up-and-down emotions, including all of the obligatory boxing film moments (including the musical training montage, and the “hero in peril in the ring” moments).

But if God’s in the details, then this film certainly deserves some credit. Director David O. Russel has immersed himself and his crew in the city of Lowell, perfectly capturing the authenticity of the place and its people. His dedication is matched, and even exceeded, by the two lead performances of Wahlberg and Bale, who spent a tremendous amount of time studying and even training with the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. Bale certainly deserves his Oscar win, and his Dicky is a spitfire ball of boundless energy and charisma. Like Bale, Melissa Leo is also a treat playing an equally big figure in Alice. In contrast, Wahlberg’s quieter, more introverted, more “method” Micky is bound to go less appreciated. Along with Amy Adams, both take an inside-out approach that contrasts well with Bale and Leo’s outside-in. But they’re no less riveting or accomplished here.

Perhaps the defining feature of the film is its unique status as, essentially, a double character study. While Micky and Wahlberg get top-billing and, indeed, the film is more focused on his career, there’s nearly equal time given to Bale and Dicky, especially considering that his arrest, addiction to, and recovery from crack serve as both the emotional and narrative catalyst for the film’s second half. To his credit, David Russel does a superb job balancing these diverging perspectives. With the exception of the sisters, who are never played as anything but a pack of annoying, pecking hens, every character is given a humanistic and 3-dimensional detailing. What emerges is a story about the chaos of family, and the ruin that can come when you have too many controlling personalities pulling someone in too many directions.

This is precisely what happens to Micky, who can’t bring himself to leave his mother, brother, sisters, and the town of Lowell to strive for something greater on his own. His comment about his mother and brother being “everyone” encapsulates his mentality. It’s refreshing that Amy Adams’ Charlene isn’t portrayed as a pure and saintly savior either. While she does help to pull Micky away from his unintentionally destructive family, she also pulls him too far, leaving Micky to realize that he needs everyone, and that neither being a slave to his family or being completely independent can help him get to where he needs to be. Perhaps this “it takes a village to raise a fighter” message would be too saccharine and cliché in most any other film, but, thankfully, Russel situates it mutedly in the noisy drama of the film and the characters.

If there’s any major disappointment here it’s that the fight scenes are surprisingly scarce, bare, and undramatic. There are two major ones, and the first, Micky’s fight against Sanchez gets him the title shot, is the better, if only because it does manage one surprising moment (replicated quite accurately from the actual fight). The lesser is the final fight that closes the film anticlimactically and in utterly predictable fashion. The most impressive element about them is how they were shot: all in three days using HBO’s resources and even early-90’s technology (beta-types, multiple setups) to authentically replicate the aesthetic. This does give the fights a much looser, more realistic quality, especially since Wahlberg and his opponents literally did fight it out with minimal “staged” moments. But while they work aesthetically, they fall flat dramatically.

Ultimately, The Fighter is a worthwhile effort, especially on the acting and character front. While there’s nothing here that’s going to revolutionize or revitalize the stagnant sports/boxing genre, there’s plenty here worthy of recommendation. Bale’s performance, especially, is outstanding, and he’s in equally good company with a great dynamicism. Perhaps the worst I can say about it is that I simply wish there was more here. I wish it took more risks or went deeper with its characters or really pushed the envelope in its fight scenes or even the romance. It feels like a movie that simply got pulled in too many directions, resulting in a narrative with too many thin strands. But when the strongest threads are this good, like Bale, then I can surely give it a general recommendation.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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