by HELEN GEIB
The Fighter fits under several category headings. Firstly it’s a biopic of “Irish” Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer out of Lowell, Massachusetts. The film picks up his story when he’s about 30. He’s been boxing professionally for a decade, but his career never took off and is going nowhere. (He makes a poor living doing seasonal construction work.) Some bad things happen close together and he stops boxing for a time. However, his passion for the sport soon pulls him back into the gym.
Secondly the narrative arc follows the pattern of the boxing movie. Ward wants to turn his life around, and he realizes he has to let go of the things that were holding him back. He accepts an old friend’s offer to train him, and the support of his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and his father. Ultimately his hard work and determination are rewarded. “Comeback” is an inadequate word for his second run at making it as a boxer: he was never on track to fight in a title match the first time around.
The main things holding him back were his personal and professional dealings with his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who doubled as his manager, and his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a failed pro boxer, current crackhead, and Micky’s trainer. It is patently obvious to everyone, inside of and watching the movie, that Alice and Dicky are bad for Micky’s career- except the three of them. The process by which they’re each made to realize this truth, what they do to change it, and how it changes their relationships is at the core of the film. Finally, the best way to describe The Fighter is to name it a character drama.
Director David O. Russell doesn’t draw distinctions between the the scenes inside and out of the ring. The visual and tonal continuity emphasizes that the fights are an expression of the drama. One of the key elements of Micky’s character arc is turning passivity into endurance; taking punishment becomes his greatest strength as a boxer. Conversely, the family drama often bears a close resemblance to boxing as people trade words like blows, and sometimes actual blows besides.
The film situates Micky in relation to a number of women. Most prominently his mother and Charlene, but also his young daughter, termagant ex, and seven indistinguishable-from-each-other sisters. However, his most significant relationship is unquestionably with his brother, who is also his childhood hero and professional mentor, and with whom he shares a passion for boxing unmatched by anyone else in their lives, the family’s longstanding shared absorption in the sport and the brothers’ careers notwithstanding.
Wahlberg gives the performance of his career to date in a role that could not be more perfectly suited to his screen persona (a goodhearted, brawn over brains, working class regular guy). Leo and Adams are dynamic and convincing. The supporting performances are good across the board.
The next paragraph is absolutely not to be read as a backhand criticism of the rest of the rest of the cast.
Bale gives by far the most remarkable performance of the film. His Method acting reaches its apogee in his embodiment of Dicky. He hasn’t looked this awful on screen since The Machinist, but it’s more than his appearance. The way he talks, the way he holds himself when he sits and walks, the way he can’t ever seem to be still for even a moment, the way his hands are always reaching out to touch someone or something or just grab at what isn’t there- it all comes together to create an indelible, original, unforgettable character.
The Fighter was filmed on location in Lowell, with locals cast in many of the smaller parts. The on-location filming and spot-on production design give the story a valuable air of verisimilitude. The look and feel of the picture work with the performances to make us believe totally in what we’re seeing on the screen: this is a true story and this is the place where it happened.
There are few criticisms to make. The script pulls a needless bait and switch on the audience with a “this is your life”-style TV documentary. The depiction of Micky’s sisters and ex verges on caricature. The latter is vicious and spiteful beyond all reason, while the former are big-haired, blue-collar cliches. Not one of the sisters has a man, a child, a place of her own, or an individuated relationship with either of her brothers. This may or may not be true to the facts of the Wards’ story. What matters is that it doesn’t feel real, and that the sister-herd comedy routine is one of the few things that occasionally threatens to break the spell.
3 1/2 stars
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The positive reception for The Fighter, a film the actor fought hard to get made, caps a good year for Mark Wahlberg. He started small but well with a fun bit in Date Night and co-starred in one of 2010’s top comedies, The Other Guys, in a role rather resembling a comedic variation on Micky Ward.