February 3, 2011


When first approaching The Fighter, you can't help but think of all the boxing films that have come before; the true tales, the underdog proving himself in the ring, the hubris... films like Rocky, Raging Bull all the way through to Million Dollar Baby. How in the hell can this possibly measure up? The amazing, almost breathtaking thing is, it does.

Mark Wahlberg is the centre of the film as Micky Ward, blue collar welterweight boxer whose best years are behind him. But Ward isn't the only fighter in the film; the title could just as easily refer to his half-brother Dicky. Christian Bale nabs the showier role of Dicky Ecklund, Micky's crack addicted ex-boxer older brother. David O. Russell directs, and manages to surprise; The Fighter is something vastly different from Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. I don't know what original director Darren Aronofsky would've done with the material, but Russell manages to bring an un-cynical eye to the tale while reigning in on the schmaltz. Much like a champion boxer, the film dances and you’re never sure where it’s going to hit you next.

Christian Bale is (deservedly) earning the lion’s share of the plaudits for his performance as Dicky Ecklund (I can’t help but wonder what the brothers make of all this...). For the first time, in a long time, he seems to be having some fun. Bale is often an intense performer; growling, losing weight and with laser intensity shooting from his eyes. It’s got him a bit of flack lately, with many critics wanting him to loosen up a little and stop shouting so damn much. And while his performance here is committed (right down to the weight loss and little bald patch), it is also loose; you get the feeling a lot of his stuff could have been improvised right there and then. Dicky Ecklund is a man who had one shining moment, and who has been dining out on that for the best part of 20 years. He's a wastoid, but a charming one and someone his brother still looks up to. I think it’s Bale's best since American Psycho.

But while Bale may be gathering all the attention, it’s the performance of Wahlberg that really holds the film together. He’s the quiet, calm centre of the family storm fighting to hold his family together, while also fighting for his sense of self. Micky Ward is a man who seems to have been used, for his entire professional life, by those that should be looking out for him: his older brother and his mother. And it takes a vicious defeat by a boxer out of his weight class, in a fight set up only so his mother and brother (manager and trainer respectively) can be paid, that he becomes fed up with this. He’s tired of being a stepping stone for other boxers; tired of being used by his family... he’s tired of losing. And Wahlberg never overplays it, never tries to show off or divert attention; he’s just there, doing a damn fine job. Wahlberg as an actor can depend a lot on the material and the director: here, he's come up aces with both. Mickey Ward doesn't have to overcome adversity, he doesn't have to overcome age (though he is getting older) - his big fight is against his family.

Filling out the cast is Melissa Leo as the boys’ controlling, big haired mother Alice and Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming, the feisty barmaid who picks Micky up and gets him to start fighting for himself. Leo is a fantastically toxic presence, weilding control over her two boys and half-dozen daughters with a steely determination. Adams comes in relatively late and thankfully isn't some all pure and amazing woman there only to support Ward. She has as many flaws as saving graces, and feels more like a real woman than these type of characters generally do.

Russell brings real heart, humour and truly brutal scenes in the ring to this tale of an underdog boxer. Nothing feels over done or overwrought. I think The Fighter can easily stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull and Rocky.

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