Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell.
2010. Rated R, 115 minutes.
Mark Wahlberg
Christian Bale
Amy Adams
Melissa Leo
Mickey O’Keefe
Jack McGee
Melissa McMeekin
Bianca Hunter
Frank Renzulli

Micky Ward (Wahlberg) has lost his last three fights and is at a crossroads in his professional boxing career. He is trained by his brother Dicky (Bale). Dicky is a local legend, having been a former fighter himself. He’s quick to tell anyone within earshot that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (who has a brief cameo as himself). Dicky is also extremely unreliable due to his addiction to crack. His pro career combined with his drug habit have brought him to the attention of cable network HBO. They have a camera following him around. He tells everyone they are making a documentary about his comeback, though he doesn’t seem to be working towards one. He is the center of attention, just the way he likes it. However, his demons threaten to sabotage his brother’s career.

Micky’s mom, Alice (Leo) also serves as his manager. She’s well meaning but not the best at either job. She’s often preoccupied with Dicky’s misadventures. With everyone except Dicky, she’s a domineering matriarch ruling her clan with an iron fist. In Dicky’s case, she’s a pushover. The entire family is this towards Dicky. This includes a litter of sisters. Micky’s dream of being a champion is in their hands.

The family dynamic plays itself on a loop in Micky’s life. He’s at the gym, ready to work, but his brother is nowhere to be found until hours after they were supposed to have started training. Alice gets him bad fights with little or no strategy for actually building his career. Micky’s father George (McGee) tries to be the voice of reason. He clearly sees that what’s going on isn’t benefiting his boy. Unfortunately, he’s always shouted down by Alice. Eventually, Micky has to fend for himself. More accurately, he has to have better people fend for him. When this starts to happen is when the family suspects there is a problem. How dare he go outside their numbers for support without him?

We watch this drama unfold in a fashion that feels excruciatingly real. This is where the power of The Fighter lies. We’re either a part of, or have known families exactly like this. If we’re a part of such a family, our empathy for Micky is boundless. If we’ve only know families like this, he has out sympathy. We wish we could save him. We root hard for Charlene (Adams) because she is obviously trying to do just that. We cheer her every action during her run-ins with Alice and the sisters.

Carrying out such a display of not always humane humanity requires great acting. This movie has it in spades. Much has been made of Christian Bale’s work as Dicky. It’s well deserved, he’s magnificent. However, it’s the battle of wills between Alice and Charlene that drives the movie. Leo and Adams each play their roles with undeniable conviction. Every rolling of the eyes, raising of the voice, expressing of concerns, swilling of a shot and puffing of a cigarette rings true. More than becoming familiar with them, we really know them. We know that they both feel they are right beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the lead, Wahlberg gives a perfectly subtle performance. When he finally explodes emotionally, it’s not some overly showy display of acting. It’s completely within the realm of how we think he would behave.

For the uninformed, this is based on a true story. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying there is an eventual triumph. In this way, it’s much like hundreds of other sports movies. Rocky leaps to mind, for obvious reasons. So too, does Invincible, another Wahlberg flick and The Blind Side. They’re both football movies based on true stories. Those two are built one cliché after another until the inevitable feel-good finale. Invincible is more or less average in every way. The Blind Side has the benefit of a remarkable performance by Sandra Bullock. They both feel like a Hollywood version of what really happened, smoothed over and watered down. The Fighter utilizes many of the same conventions. Somehow though, it makes them feel much more real.

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