Fighter, The (United States, 2010)December 10, 2010
From Rocky to Raging Bull, boxing movies with a variety of themes and intentions have been staples at Oscar time. On the one hand, there are the crowd-pleasing stories: tales of woebegone underdogs given a chance at redemption by going 15 rounds in a championship bout. If skillfully constructed, a motion picture of that strain will have audience members on their feet, cheering with as much abandon as one might encounter at an actual bout. Then there are the more artful fight movies: productions that use boxing as a metaphor for something deeper and darker, or that employ the ring action as a means of amplifying aspects of the protagonist's character. The Fighter, the latest motion picture effort from volatile director David O. Russell, samples both of these approaches, and the resulting synthesis offers viewers opportunities to stand and clap, but only after navigating some dark currents.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to find a new wrinkle in a genre as frequently visited as this one. Like many boxing movies, the story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is based on a true tale, albeit with the fictional flourishes necessary to make it cinematic. The progression of the story contains a lot that's familiar but it is presented with sufficient conviction to make it seem less like an interconnected web of clichés and more like something close to unique. While staple training scenes and the in-the-ring action echo dozens of similar scenes from other productions (to the point where, during one montage, we're wondering when "Gonna Fly Now" is going to begin playing), the fractious family dynamic is what provides The Fighter with its difference-maker.
The Fighter opens in the early 1990s on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. An HBO documentary crew is shadowing Mickey's older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), as he goes about his daily routines. Although the filmmakers are open about their project - a look at how cocaine destroys lives - addict Dicky believes they are chronicling his "comeback." After a middling career, he left the ring behind, but he dreams of a glorious return. For now, he trains Mickey and spends hours in an infamous coke house, getting high. The combination of Dicky's ineffective training and the incompetent management of his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), results in Mickey fighting a man 20 pounds heavier and getting pummeled. Soon thereafter, when Dicky's criminal activities lead to a jail term, Mickey breaks with his mother and brother. His new support crew includes his father, George (Jack McGee); his girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams); and his new trainer, Mickey (Mickey O'Keefe). As Mickey takes baby steps back toward respectability on the boxing circuit, the friction in his personal life threatens to derail his career.
The Fighter has been long percolating, with the original script surfacing in the mid-'00s and being shepherded toward production by Mark Wahlberg, who once idolized the real Mickey Ward. After Martin Scorsese turned down the opportunity to direct, Darren Aronofsky was brought on board. Production delays resulted in Aronofsky stepping down (although he retains an Executive Producer credit), with David O. Russell replacing him. This is Russell's first film since I Heart Huckabees, a production better known for infamous behind-the-scenes shouting matches and gossip column vitriol. It is also the third teaming for Wahlberg and Russell, following Three Kings and Huckabees. (Whatever qualities Russell possesses that enflamed the ire of several of his collaborators on Huckabees have obviously not been an issue for Wahlberg.)
The Fighter effectively balances sports elements with dysfunctional family drama. The latter is at times brutal, with Mickey torn between his loyalty to his mother and brother and his desire to pursue a championship. When he decides that his life's dream is better served by having a more professional manager than Alice and a more reliable trainer than Dicky, he fosters a sense of betrayal. Scenes of Mickey facing down Alice and confronting Dicky are among the film's most intense, in large part due to the immersive performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, both of whom disappear beneath the skins of their characters. Bale, a disciple of Marlon Brando's school of method acting, spent countless hours with the real-life Dicky, studying his mannerisms and, as with The Machinist, he lost weight to the point of near-unrecognizable gauntness. Leo, an Oscar nominee for Frozen River, provides a screen mother who will not soon be forgotten.
Cast against type is Amy Adams. Normally tabbed for sweet and innocent roles, Adams here dons the persona of a confrontational bitch. She spews more profanity than any of her male co-stars, beats the crap out of one of Mickey's sisters, and stands toe-to-toe with Alice. Charlene has a softer side and a sexier aspect, and Adams nails every facet of the character. Finally, there's Wahlberg, whose performance may be the least showy. The fight scenes are believable, in part because they avoid Hollywood theatrics and because Wahlberg looks like he belongs in the ring. The actor is unlikely to receive an Oscar nomination for his work here, but he is the anchor that holds the production in place and allows the performers around him to take flight.
Paramount's release strategy for The Fighter indicates a belief that the film has a better chance to triumph in the Oscar nomination race than in the box office competition. Nevertheless, it is mainstream enough that there's no reason it shouldn't do well in multiplexes. The movie contains sufficient emotional heft to offer a more satisfying experience than one often attains from a straightforward sports movie. At the same time, it doesn't entirely sacrifice the "rush" that accompanies a good "underdog triumphant" yarn. The Fighter may not be a heavyweight, but it's more than capable of providing a solid bout.
Fighter, The (United States, 2010)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O'Keefe
Screenplay: Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Music: Michael Brook
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures