Photo courtesy of Mandeville Films
Review by Ryan Wilson

Before I begin this week's review of The Fighter, I should disclaim that I am not usually kind to boxing films, mainly because I feel the genre itself has run dry of insights. The two overused clichés in this type of film involve either the classic underdog story of a working class bloke, à la Rocky, who literally fights incredible odds just to compete or the deeper story involving the consequences of the pugilist's lifestyle, à la Ray Lamotta, where the violence of the sports deteriorates the personal life of the protagonist. If it's a boxing film, you usually know the themes will involve either overcoming class or self-destruction. Also, I get easily bored with training montages and fighting sequences, especially climactic ones.

In so many ways The Fighter includes all of these chestnuts, and yet due to some elevated performances and director David O. Russell’s stealth management of an otherwise tired tale, the movie still packs a punch.

Based on the true story of Micky Ward's journey to his welterweight championship in 2000, the film really belongs to Ward's half-brother Dicky, Micky's trainer and also a former welterweight boxer himself. Dicky's glory ends with his knocking Sugar Ray Leonard down in a match in 1978, not out but down, making him the "Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts," a moniker that both blesses and curses him. Dicky, played by a bug-eyed Christian Bale, coasts by in his blue-collar town as a local hero for years, yet inside his insecurity leads him to crime and to crack addiction. Meanwhile, Micky, played by the stoic Mark Wahlberg, tries his best to respect his brother's expertise as a boxer, while distancing himself from the chaos. This is made all the more difficult because their mother Alice dominates the situation as Micky's manager. She won't acknowledge Dicky's destructive tendencies, mainly because she, like Dicky, is also stuck dwelling on the family's past success.

Since family conflict is the center of the story, at its best The Fighter feels less about boxing and more like a Eugene O’Neil drama for the lower class. The best moments don’t take place ringside, but on the porches and living rooms in the crumbling Lowell neighborhoods where these people live. The thick accents, the big hair, and the combustible tempers are fascinating to watch, and Russell directs his actors knowing this. At its best the film abandons the plot altogether. Often it feels like we're watching a nature documentary. For example, in addition to his brother and mother Micky must also quell the passions of his seven (yes, I said seven) sisters, who converge on an outsider like a pack of jackals picking apart their prey in the desert. They don't just devour what they see as a threat but orchestrate their jibes and jabs as a favorite family activity. They're a mob matriarchy led by mother Alice, who knows how to keep them close and unleash them on anyone threatening to her power. The threat here being Amy Adams, who plays Micky's girlfriend Charlene, or as the sisters call her a "MTV skank." She rightfully suggests that Micky find new management. In the film's best scene, Alice maneuvers her daughters to pay a visit to Charlene's apartment, and the result is more riveting or violent than any scene in the ring.

Adams is a firecracker as Charlene, but then she needs to be to challenge Alice played by Melissa Leo, who has already won the Golden Globe this year for her supporting performance. One major disappointment in the film is the missing climax to the subplot involving these two characters. Each woman claws her way into Micky's decision making, but they both fade away when the plot takes over for the last act and Micky begins to win more boxing matches.

But the film truly belongs to Christian Bale as Dicky. Bale plays the part all jittery and obnoxious. His Dicky is strung-out to the point of combustion. You can’t keep your eyes off of him. Even his simplest transaction is fraught with hyperactivity. Bale, best known for his leading man looks, also physically transformed for the role, losing a significant amount of weight, as he did once before in 2003's The Machinist. Like Leo, Bale also won a best supporting award at this month’s Golden Globes, and he's probably a lock for the same award at the Oscars. However, in most ways Dicky is the fighter of the title, and Bale should arguably be placed in the best actor category. With Bale's transformation, Leo and Adam’s power-struggle, and David O. Russell's anthropological direction, The Fighter ultimately overcomes the standard boxing film formula. Audiences seeking traditional inspiration from such a true story won't walk away disappointed, but if they're paying closer attention they'll get a little something more. By the end, the winner or losing feels irrelevant as it's just a victory for Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund to survive their family and their own demons. 

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011