The Fighter is a case of an unremarkable screenplay being elevated by fantastic performances. Chronicling the early life of Massachusetts born boxing hero Micky Ward and that of his troubled older brother Dicky Eklund, The Fighter is truly an acting tour de force. Christian Bale is given the biggest chance to shine as the coked up Dicky, but everyone from a feisty Amy Adams to a subdued Mark Wahlberg also inject further jolts of thespian class. Overseen by controversial filmmaker David O. Russell (helming his first picture since 2004), The Fighter isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it is consistently involving.
The year is 1993, and in the town of Lowell Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is a living legend. Famed for once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a boxing match, Dicky remains a popular local presence but his fearsome addiction to cocaine has rendered him an emaciated shadow of his former self. When Dicky isn’t satisfying his rampant drug habit, he trains his sibling Micky (Mark Wahlberg) in the art of boxing, a firm sense of brotherly love bonding the two together. However after Micky is forced into a series of unwinnable fights by Dicky and his tyrannical mother Alice (Melissa Leo), he decides to move away from his dysfunctional family in search of true athletic gratification. Spurred on by his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky’s new career direction works wonders for the boxer’s confidence and success rate, but leaves his family, most notably Dicky, in a tailspin of self destructive confusion.
The Fighter is more of a character study than a film devoted to the sport of boxing, examining its two central figures with daring intimacy. The actual storytelling is fairly predictable, but thanks to ace characterization and top class performances the movie always engages. The Fighter has been designed in the underdog mould of a hundred other pictures, but its attention to detail and ability to make viewers care about its protagonist sets it somewhat apart from the competition. I can’t see the production enjoying the same fist pumping longevity as a genre favourite like Rocky, but in truth it’s not far off.
Christian Bale does great work as Dicky, convincing both physically and emotionally as the still proud former darling of his community. The actor nails the local accent, and brings enough raw energy to power a small factory. It’s definitely the movie’s flashiest role, especially during the character’s numerous scenes of intense intoxication, but Bale never forgets to hit a deeper and more meaningful note as a man who tossed his grandest opportunity in life to the wayside. However Bale’s madness is only permitted on the back of Wahlberg’s assured and unselfish portrayal of Micky, quietly depicting his character’s inner angst with subtly and skill. The screenplay is evidently more interested in examining Dicky’s demons than Micky’s rise to fame; a fact that immediately puts Wahlberg on the back foot. Yet the Boston native manages to turn Micky into a three dimensional and sympathetic figure, which against Bale’s towering turn is an achievement in its own right. Wahlberg and Bale combine effectively during their many shared scenes, an intense sense of loyalty and eventually bittersweet realization dominating their onscreen relationship.
Russell elects to shoot the boxing sequences as if they were being broadcast on HBO, lending them an appreciatively organic feel. The competitive set-pieces are technically composed yet emotionally heated, the director always keeping one eye on the fight and the other on the touchy ringside dramatics. Each of these sequences exudes a critical sense of scale and importance, the sporting triumphs and failures juxtaposing nicely with the picture’s family fuelled theatrics. The Fighter definitely has its share of dark moments, but there’s also some amusing comic relief to absorb; Micky’s clan of bitchy and overbearing sisters providing a host of hearty giggles.
The plot doesn’t offer too many surprises, and it short-changes the female entities at the expense of its masculine leads. However despite the fact they occupy underwritten roles both Amy Adams and Melissa Leo do powerful work, infusing their characters with strength and tenacity. I’m not sure either figure is particularly likable, but they’re undoubtedly commanding.
The feel good finale seems like an atmospheric concession by the filmmakers in order to appeal to a wider demographic, but then again that’s how it all went down in reality. Adding to the movie’s palatable taste is a zingy soundtrack, brimming with catchy yet wholly appropriate tunes. The Fighter is a worthwhile motion picture, perhaps not destined to become a classic, but filled with enough highpoints to render it a rewarding watch. It’s not quite a knockout, but The Fighter definitely packs enough punch to remain memorable.
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams