The Fighter

Boxing movies are a well established sub genre in film history. From 1931’s The Champ with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper to the Rocky movies to Raging Bull to Million Dollar Baby, Americans have always been drawn to the atavistic violence of one man (or woman) trying to beat the brains out of another.  It’s a working class phenomenon, both as a parable for upward mobility, and the tragedy of a flawed antagonist unable to control the violence that lets him succeed at such a brutal sport enough to live a normal life outside the ring.

High drama in low places.
There’s a formula to most of these things.  Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby break it but many good boxing movies adhere strictly to the tale of the working class palooka, hoping to get his shot at the big time. It’s a warhorse of a plot but basically there’s nothing wrong with it if done well.

I’ve said before if there weren’t cliches in your sports movies you’d miss them.

The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, features Mark Wahlberg as the palooka “Irish” Mickey Ward and Christian Bale as his even more palooka-like brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. It’s based on a true story. Mickey is a talented boxer with quick powerful hands although not much in the way of footwork. He prefers to stand toe to toe and slug it out. It works most of the time but not often enough to get him good well-paying fights. Also not helping is the fact that his mother Alice Ward, played by Melissa Leo, is acting as his manager and although she not totally incompetent at the job, she isn’t capable of behaving professionally enough to be taken seriously by the people who can get Mickey good fights. In addition, it’s obvious that Dicky is her favorite. Which is a problem because Dicky’s crack addiction is getting in the way as well. He’s constantly late for training sessions and even flights to Vegas for fights. Clearly, Mickey needs new people looking out for him, and his new girlfriend, Charlene, played by Amy Adams, encourages him to make the change. But how do you say no to your family?

This film is shot on grainy stock with natural lighting and hand-held camera shots that give it an “indie” film look. Furthermore, the tone of the script is very non-expository. The audience is thrown into the story and nothing is explained. Sometimes the Massachusetts accents are so thick (The story is set in Lowell, MA) that you can’t understand the dialog. In the opening scene a film crew follows Mickey and Dicky as they walk down the street, joking around with all the people who come out to greet them. Dicky tells everybody that their making a film about his comeback, although it turns out later that the film is really about the horrors of crack addiction. There’s a lot of overtalking and bluster in the dialog. David O. Russell is a talented filmmaker and his choices here have some of the effect he wants to convey, but sometimes his technique draws too much attention to itself.

There’s a scene when Dicky is in jail, going through cold turkey while lying on his bunk. Flashbacks appear above his head, as regrets begin to rain down on him. It’s unsubtle and like something you would expect to see in an old silent film. Russell just doesn’t seem to have complete control over the vocabulary of film. There are other areas where he’s great. In the fight scenes, Mickey’s strategy is to cover up and let his opponent punch himself out before going on the attack. Russell shows shot after shot of Mickey up against the ropes, his gloves over his face, taking punch after punch. He does this until you’re screaming, “make your move already,” and then for a few shots after that. It’s a triumphant moment when Mickey starts fighting back.

So the film is inconsistent.

The performances are mostly terrific. Wahlberg isn’t really stretching here, but his everyman charisma is easy to watch and to cheer for. Christian Bale is a brilliant courageous actor who absolutely inhabits his role. The film is really about Dicky and Bale nails this guy who is such an engagingly large personality, but also so obviously untrustworthy. Melissa Leo has been getting a lot of praise as Alice, but I found her performance to be a little over the top in places. Amy Adams sheds her sweet little good girl image to become a hard partying but ultimately sensible bartender.

Plot wise The Fighter is strictly by the boxing movie formula, but there’s a lot more here. It’s not a perfect film but it’s well worth seeing.

 

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