Film Review: The Fighter

The Fighter  |  Director David O. Russell  |  Score: 7.8

To begin with, how can you even make a dramatic film about boxing anymore? You have two fully iconic films in Rocky and Raging Bull so steeped into the national consciousness, any whiff of either of their narratives feels completely derivative. In the one, you have a rags-to-riches story with a palooka finally getting a shot, in the other, you have an intense character study of a former champ who brings on his own demise with his pettiness. Daring director David O. Russell’s eloquent solution is to fuse the two elements together with his own off-beat sensibilities and the result is verifiably impressive.

The true story centers around two Boston-area brothers, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a young tomato can earning some dough and a lot of lumps in the ring, and his older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a revered former fighter (known as “the pride of Lowell”) gone to seed and the crack pipe, though he’s supposed to be Micky’s trainer. The boys are lead by their pugnacious mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) — also mother to seven heckling daughters — who serves as Micky’s manager. The trouble is, both Alice and Dicky have their own agenda for Micky — he makes them a fair amount of money, no matter how badly they neglect his career — so he’s really left on his own, getting regular beatings in the ring. When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), working in a local bar, she starts to steer him clear of his flying circus of a family, but it is only when Dicky is arrested and put in jail that he is finally able to spread his wings and box with purpose.

But the film is hardly a simple redemptive story. For one thing, most of the redemption, such as it is, doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Micky’s done nothing wrong, other than dutifully follow his mother and older brother’s wishes (“I’m sick of being a fucking disappointment,” he says to Charlene), so the task of salvation really falls upon them, especially after Dicky gets out of prison and wants to work with Micky again. The film is filled with video clips and old movies of the brothers, including Dicky’s celebrated fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in the late ’70s, serving as the validation of their memory of things. It’s all that kind of weight Micky ultimately has to shrug off in order to better fully embrace who he is. Purposefully, the film avoids many of the standard boxing tropes, while embracing others. It’s not a film of iconic moments, Russell shrewdly avoids indulging in grand gestures, rather he brings a neo-documentary mise en scene burnish to better realistically portray what could have been an easily overwrought narrative arc.

To that end, his cast is flatly phenomenal, no one more so than Bale, who attacks Dicky’s lunatic charisma and twitchy energy with complete abandon, sporting a greasy sheen, deep-set eyes and rotting teeth, his is a Best Actor performance in the making. Leo is also brilliant, disavowing her normal intellectualism to channel this fiercely demanding and unstable mother figure. Wahlberg also does excellent work and works so flawlessly with Adams you can palpably feel their connection. Russell, who hadn’t made a film since the brilliant-but-manic I Heart Huckabees left him with a reputation as egocentric and batshit crazy needed a comeback as much as any of these characters. It looks like he’s got one.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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