The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee
By Alan Bacchus
Back in December I shamed myself for doubting this picture. As I was posting my ‘Best of 2010’ list, I had the opportunity to hold off until I saw this film, but my impatience had me doubting The Fighter. After all, the story of a down-and-out boxer overcoming the odds to win a title shot is perhaps the oldest story in Hollywood, one that is also played out. Knowing that this was originally a Darren Aronofsky project that was passed off to David O. Russell, I questioned the passion of the filmmakers behind this movie.
And so, what a joy it was to be shocked to life by Russell’s impeccable skills. This is a story so perfectly crafted and executed, it hits those core, base and fundamental emotions we have toward brotherhood, ambition and survival in life. It’s a true triumph of the human spirit that provides the same chills up our spine as other classics of the genre, including Rocky, The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby.
My DFD colleague Greg Klymkiw described Clint Eastwood’s Invictus as a meat-and-potatoes film. The Fighter also falls into this category. We know these characters very well. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) are half-brothers from the working class town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Dickie, the eldest who once fancied himself as the ‘Pride of Lowell’, is a failed boxer who clings to his one triumph – knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight 14 years prior. Now he’s a crack addict with one foot in the grave, and he would be dead if it wasn’t for his younger brother, whom he trains to be the next ‘Pride of Lowell’.
Micky Ward, the younger brother, is actually near the end of his career. He’s suffered three losses in a row and needs a victory to keep him in the game. A painful loss to a heavier fighter cripples the relationship between the two brothers. The defeat is blamed on Dickie and his headstrong mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo). Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a red headed bargirl/college drop-out, who gives Micky the idea that he could be a success if he breaks away from his family.
And so, Micky is presented with an agonizing internal conflict – the desire to live up to the pedestal on which his brother places him, and the loyalty and love he deeply desires to give his family. This is the strongest kind of decision-making we can see in cinema, and they’re decisions we in the audience subliminally make in our heads as we watch the film. We imagine confronting our own older brothers or dedicated mothers who have nurtured us our whole lives.
The Fighter has the rare spark of truth, a miraculous kind of truth that exists in every moment of the film. Russell impressively mixes the emotions conveyed by Micky’s decisions and Dickie’s heartbreaking fight with substance abuse with the same unique sense of irreverent humour found in all his other films, including Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings. Much of the humour in The Fighter comes from the authenticity he finds in the working class milieu of Lowell. It can be seen in Micky’s seven sisters, for instance, all of whom look like haggard cougars-in-training pulled from the seediest bar in Lowell. They appear together as a group in almost every scene in the background, like a peanut gallery.
The performances in the film are top-notch in every role. It’s one of Christian Bale’s best, as he goes beyond the superficial physical transformation to become an underweight crack addict. We feel the genuine love he has for his brother and his desire to win despite the personal trauma he experiences. Wahlberg admirably assumes the less showy role, a reactive straight man performance, which usually gets overshadowed by the histrionics of the more rowdy characters. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo both shine as two strong women who antagonize each other with Micky in the middle. Both are fighters in their own way who won’t back down from each other.
Although it’s a story of two brothers with a focus on the very masculine world of professional boxing, The Fighter is not a macho film. It’s a universal story of family, mothers, daughters, brothers and the inexplicable bond that can push us all toward extraordinary things.
The Fighter is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.