Sunday, April 10, 2011
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, Jack McGee
Running Time: 115 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The Fighter is a story about a hard-working guy surrounded by well-meaning morons. That comes as a relief since here I was going into this thinking I'd be re-watching The Wrestler, only this time with boxing. It isn't technically about boxing, or even really a sports movie. The morons in question are family and this film offers up the best case yet for that old saying that you can't choose your family. The Fighter is all about family, but not in that sappy, sentimental way most sports movies are about them sticking together to triumph over adversity. This is about how they can, despite their best intentions, hold someone back and stop them from getting where they need to go. That's just the starting point for a true story that actually feels like a true story for its brutal honesty and realism, holding nothing back in its sometimes ugly, occasionally hilarious depiction of its subjects. That the director's controversial hot head David O. Russell (ironically taking the reigns from The Wrestler's Darren Aronofsky who dropped out to make Black Swan but stayed on as a producer) insured it would be edgy and not go the predictable, sentimental route of other true life sports stories. His gritty, take no prisoners approach to the material helps a lot as for nearly two hours the biggest fights happen outside the ring, in living rooms, outside of crack houses and on front porches as a dysfunctional family struggles to get on the same page. Anyone arguing that a frightening Christian Bale or to a slightly lesser degree, his unrecognizable co-star Melissa Leo, didn't deserve their supporting Oscar wins (or Amy Adams her nomination) for their work here don't have a leg to stand on. Mark Wahlberg may be the star, but this movie's theirs.
"Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg) is a struggling, slightly past-his-prime welterweight boxer from a working-class family in Lowell, Massachutsettes whose older half-brother Dicky Eklund's (Bale) claim to fame is maybe (depending on who you talk to) knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard years ago in a televised HBO match. Now, he's a 40-year-old crack addict thinking he's getting a televised special on his "comeback," that's actually a documentary on the dangers of drug use. Consumed with the past and living vicariously through Micky, Dicky is a total disaster as his trainer, driving his career into the ground by spending his days at a crack house and booking him against much heavier fighters he doesn't stand a chance against. Not helping any is their manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), more concerned with Dicky's hopeless, imaginary comeback and re-living the past than getting Micky the right fights. Only their father George (Jack McGee) seems clued into reality and when he introduces Micky to feisty bartender Charlene (Amy Adams) and they begin a relationship, her attempts to get him to see the damage his professional damage his family is causing him results in an ugly feud. With Dicky's crack addiction and erratic behavior worsening, Micky is forced to choose between his career and family.
One of the film's most memorable moments is its opening as Dicky, once known as "The Pride of Lowell" for his in-ring accomplishments, walks the neighborhood with his brother and it's clear at least some of Dicky's boasting is true, or was at one point. This great sequence (set to The Heavy's "How Do You Like Me Now") really takes us into the neighborhood and lets us speculate whether these guys are local legends because they're great, or just simply because of a lack of better alternatives or anything else for these locals to latch onto. It's never really established whether either of these guys were ever great boxers (you could even argue Micky is somewhat terrible based on what we see), which ends up being one the story's better attributes. A glory hog, Dicky is a legend in his own mind and all the attention (whether it be good or bad) is just added fuel for him to self-destruct as he selfishly but maybe unknowingly leads his brother's career down the gutter while succumbing to his addictions. And boy is this some supporting performance from Christian Bale, reminding us in case we've forgotten during his Batman stint, why he's still one of the very best at what he does. The transformation he undergoes here is nothing short of astonishing. Unrecognizably skeletal (dropping nearly as much weight as he did for The Machinist) and perfecting a credible Boston accent, this is an acting tour-de-force that if entered into the lead category at this year's Oscars probably would have sent Colin Firth home empty handed. No one could have also guessed Bale was capable of being this funny, as he keeps us laughing uncomfortably at his antics at even the film's darkest moments.
Almost equally unrecognizable and powerful is Melissa Leo as the hot-tempered, delusional matriarch who seems to want to do the best for both her sons but is just too stubborn and narrow-minded to have any kind of a positive affact on either of her sons' lives. What Bale and Leo both do best is make sure neither of these people come off as outright despicable or out to destroy Micky, which is a small miracle considering all the heinous damage they inflict. At times both almost seem to try to be helping, but in the only way they know how. You'd see how someone as loyal as Micky would fall into the trap of not wanting to turn his back on them, even as they unintentionally sabotage his future. Considering Micky's supposed to be 31 years old and 145 pounds, Wahlberg is definitely miscast on paper but he pulls it off anyway if only because it's difficult to picture anyone else playing this role. He's always good at conveying quiet determination, and is more low-key than anyone, which strangely makes him perfect for this. It's most fun to watch Wahlberg when he's hilariously miscast (like in The Happening and The Lovely Bones) because he always manages to overcome it through sheer hard work, which is commendably rare. As Charlene, be prepared for Amy Adams as you've never seen her before. As a tough, angry bitch who refuses to back down to Micky's family (and shouldn't because she's right), she displays a side to her acting talent totally unanticipated. One scene in which her fearless character goes toe-to-toe with all of Micky's repulsive sisters on the front porch is alone worth the price of admission. While it's unusual the lead is completely overshadowed by the rest of the cast, given the nature of the story, it almost seems appropriate here.
Playing half like a hard-hitting docudrama and also a true-life sports story, Russell carefully avoids the pitfalls usually associated with these types of films by focusing with unrelenting honesty on this family feud. The boxing scenes are well choreographed and easy to follow but that probably occupies the least amount of time in this story. Music plays an important role as the action takes place in 1993 and feels like it, many of the rock soundtrack selections (including Led Zeppelin, The Scorpions and Red Hot Chili Peppers) are lifted from other eras, yet are interwoven seamlessly. As is unfortunately the norm these days, none of these songs (some of the best musical choices assembled for a picture this year) are available on the officially released album due to rights issues so enjoy them in the movie while you can. Some may take issue with the ending and that's understandable but I didn't have a problem with it since it's difficult coming up with any alternative that could have worked any better considering this is based on a true story and that's exactly what happened. It doesn't feel like a cop-out. Underdog stories about an athletes overcoming the odds have been done to death, but The Fighter isn't exactly that and deserves credit for putting a fresh spin on something we thought they ran out of fresh spins for.