The Fighter (2010)
Somewhere along the line, the boxing film became the perfect metaphor for the underdog story. Two men at battle with only their fists and iron wills. Somehow this match up has come to symbolize man’s eternal struggle against himself and society. From Body and Soul to Rocky and Raging Bull, it’s hard to imagine the filmic landscape without the tropes of boxing. It’s also a pretty staid and tired genre, where filmmakers often rely on those tropes to fill in the gaps for lazy storytelling. The Fighter is a true story that star Mark Wahlberg has been nursing for years trying to get it off the ground. It’s the knockout acting and attention to character that separates The Fighter from the competition. Rarely has such a sedate formula felt so freshly presented.
In the mid 1990s, Mickey Ward (Wahlberg) is a man trying to come to grips with his life. His welterweight boxing career has stalled thanks primarily to his trainer, his unreliable half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Big brother used to be the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, once fighting Sugar Ray Leonard and boasting about knocking the giant down (this claim is in dispute as replays show that Leonard may have simply tripped). Dicky’s boxing career went away about the same time that Dicky became addicted to crack cocaine, spending long hours inside Lowell’s many crack houses. An HBO documentary crew is following around Dicky, which he mistakenly believes is a ticket to his comeback. Mickey’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), also serves as manager to both her boys. Dicky is clearly the apple of her eye and Alice enables his destructive behavior. Mickey is pushed into fights to feed his extended family (eight siblings), and the thrill is gone. Then one day he’s approached by a promoter who will give Mickey one more chance. The only catch is that Mickey has to cut his family loose.
Truth be told, The Fighter isn’t really much of a boxing movie. Sure that’s the selling point and it allows for a rousing, crowd-pleasing finish, but Mickey could just as easily be striving to open a deli or striving to go back to school. The real story is the family. The boxing is only a backdrop, and if it weren’t for the true-story basis I would say it serves as little more than a metaphor for the punishment Mickey has taken in life. The Fighter is about a man working up the courage not to step into the boxing ring but to break away from his self-destructive family weighing him down in misery. This is a dysfunctional family drama disguised as a Rocky-style boxing redemption picture. The boxing aspects are small, mostly contained to the final act as Mickey’s career finally begins to gain some traction. For some, this will be disappointing news. But for me, I loved the family drama stuff. This is a fractured family with deep lines of division, nursing grudges, resentment waiting to boil over, all the marks of meaty drama. The focus is on Mickey trying to break away from the pull of his harmful older half-brother and his boorish mother. His mother enables Dicky, her favorite child, to the detriment of the rest of her brood. Her relationship with Dicky is fascinating and complicated, like a mother sacrificing the rest of her clan to help her most damaged child. You can catch some of the invisible ripples from these decisions, like the seven sisters all forming one unified hive-mind to survive. They’re like a block of cheerleaders for mother, only able to get attention and some form of affection by doing so. The extensive family unit revolves around Leo’s matriarch, fiercely protective and fiercely myopic. She refuses to remove herself from Mickey’s management team, and thus Mickey and his career suffer. It’s downright Oedipal. If only he can escape the clutches of his family, perhaps Mickey can taste success that has eluded him so long. The family drama makes up a good majority of The Fighter, and that’s just fine with me when I get characters this damaged and complicated.
And all of this is blissfully entertaining. Director David O. Russell is miles away from his other films like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. This is different kind of redemption story where the main guy winning a title is nice, and we can all celebrate, but it’s really his separation from a harsh family dragging him down. The film also produces an engaging romance for Mickey, which gives him a renewed sense of purpose to finally break free of his family. Amy Adams (Enchanted, Doubt) is a bartender at a local hangout with some college under her belt, a point that irritates Mickey’s family. The Eklund sisters lash out at Mickey’s squeeze in childish ways. Adams, playing Charlene, shies away from the daffy or genteel roles of her past. She gets to spit profanities with glee. Her relationship with Mickey serves as a foil to his family, showing what strength a positive, healthy relationship can achieve. But while the family is presented in an antagonistic sense, they are not blithely demonized. Russell and his team of writers and actors use humor to find surprising pockets of warmth amidst all the darkness and shattered dreams. This isn’t an addiction story that plumbs the depths of human weakness. The production feels bathed in authenticity and the city of Lowell, Massachusetts and its lived-in, blue-collar culture feels like another vital character. When the HBO documentary finally airs, you feel the cloud of hurt that covers the entire town in shame. Nobody wants to be known as a town famous for crack addiction (you can watch the 1995 doc online for free).
The acting is also some of the best you’ll see all year. Wahlberg is a sturdy center, used to the abuse and underplaying his character’s transformation from punching bag to assertive human being. This is Wahlberg’s home turf, and he’s been shopping the story for years in Hollywood, so it’s no surprise that everything comes so natural for the Beantown kid. But his understated work is going to get obscured with the flamboyant performances from both Bale and Leo. Bale (The Dark Knight, Rescue Dawn) has long been considered one of the finest actors of his generation, his Method devotion and versatility a godsend. In The Fighter, he’s a live wire, a bundle of energy in a haunting skeletal frame. He’s a figure of lost promise, of tragedy and bruised ego, trying to live vicariously through his younger brother. He’s deluded himself into thinking that this HBO documentary will launch a comeback at 40. Bale excels with the bombastic bits, practically bouncing off the walls, but then he nails the quieter, smaller moments of his character, where Dicky realizes that he’s wasted his gifts. Leo (Frozen River) could easily fall into an outsized monster of large hair and nicotine-stained fingers, but the Oscar-nominated actress finds exciting ways to tap into her character’s humanity. She fully knows that her beloved child is a crack addict, but watching her rationalize and justify her actions is exciting.
The Fighter is a meaty family drama, stirring tale of redemption, and a showcase of superior acting. In an awards season where it feels like many films are missing some secret ingredient, The Fighter has it all together. It’s an underdog story of a different flavor that manages to be authentic, entertaining, charitable, and engrossing even while staying within the boundaries of a predictable framework. We all know that Mickey will triumph in the ring; otherwise his tale would never have caught the notice of Hollywood producers. This is a fresh take on old material. The focus is on the fractured family dynamic and the many characters, not on a simplistic rising through the rankings of sport. It’s because of the tremendous acting and character work that the first half of the film easily outshines the second. Once the family is sidelined, and Mickey’s boxing career takes off, The Fighter turns into a more conventional genre picture, though still engaging. The movie ends on a satisfying note of uplift that feels fully earned without a twinge of naiveté. This Oscar season, expect audiences and voters alike to find something to cheer about in this return to the ring.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Posted on December 19, 2010, in 2010 Movies and tagged addiction, amy adams, boxing, christian bale, david o. russell, drama, mark wahlberg, melissa leo, oscars, true-life. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.