Boxing movies tend to have a pretty rigid and predictable structure. Down and out fighter gets beat up and knocked down, in the ring and by life. Fighter works hard, fights back, gets a shot at a comeback, redemption, and... gets beat up and knocked down again before triumphing in the end. This is also the basic structure of most kung fu movies, and most sports movies too. (But not most sporting events. Just ask the New York Jets.) It's more or less the basic plot of The Fighter, based on the true story of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts whose career conveniently followed a course made for movies.
Micky's bouts in the boxing ring are a cakewalk compared to his family life. Start with his motormouthed half brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once-promising boxer whose career peaked when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, an accomplishment he is quick to recount to anyone who will listen. Micky grew up idolizing his big brother, and remains loyal to Dicky even though he's a crackhead. With Dicky as his trainer, and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) as his manager, Micky's chances of success are slim. To call Micky's family dysfunctional -- in additon to Dicky and Alice there are his seven furious, fractious sisters -- is an understatement. Micky's a fairly quiet, passive guy. It's easy to imagine him spending his whole life never getting a word in edgewise, and getting shouted down every time he tried. He's not so different as a boxer -- he lays on the ropes, and takes a beating, wearing down his opponent and waiting for a chance to strike. The question for Micky, the central question of The Fighter, is whether Micky will ever find it in himself to get off the ropes and fight his family.
There are good reasons to think he should. Family matriarch Alice clearly favors Dicky. Dicky, for his part, is more interested in his own comeback than in guiding his little brother. Micky's a surrogate, fighting not so much for himself but to give his grandstanding brother a second chance at glory, and it's not at all clear that anyone has his best interests at heart. Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), Micky's girlfriend, a scrappy, tough-talking barmaid who stands up to Alice and her seven daughters when Micky can't. She can also throw a mean punch when she has to.
The Fighter is less about boxing than it is a love story, a family drama, and a complicated tale of fraternal love and sibling rivalry. It's crazy, funny, sad, profane, and sometimes profound, and a nimble, lively, psychologically complex story. There are really a multitude of fighters in The Fighter, and the obvious one, Micky Ward, is the least pugilistic of the bunch.
Bale's performance -- he seems to reinvent himself for every role -- is quite extraordinary. He's gaunt, wild-eyed and energetically frantic, revealing not only the ravages of Dicky's drug addiction, but also the athlete he once was. Dicky runs, punches, spars, and never stops talking, as if willing his body to do things it really shouldn't be able to do. He's a clown, a raconteur, a fighter, a mama's boy, a mentor, a charmer, and smarter than he looks -- he never stops thinking about strategy, even though most of his personal decisions, impaired as they are by drugs and drug-seeking, are quite bad.
Leo's Alice is in the dubious company of other mythically terrible movie mothers -- she chain smokes, she badgers, she storms, she hurls kitchenware, she denies and defames, she roars. She undermines Micky's career even while she exploits it for money and attention. Micky, it is clear, can never be better than his big brother in Alice's eyes, and whether she does it intentionally or not, she sees to it that he never quite succeeds. Only Charlene dares to face down the harridan and her vulgar, vicious daughters who, between them, use enough hairspray to keep the ozone hole open for business. (That the family cooperated with the filmmakers is interesting, to say the least.)
Wahlberg's performance is quiet, like Micky. He seems to be waiting for something, and watching from the outside as Charlene and the Ward and Eklund families duke it out. What they're fighting over is, of course, Micky's destiny. Micky's personality, and Walhberg's performance, parallel the progress of the story, which is, in the end, about a quiet, passive, non-aggressive man who finds the fighter in himself, and finally discovers something worth fighting for.
The Fighter, filmed in Lowell, is appropriately gritty and grimy, with the hardscrabble working class town looking as desperate and ground down as its fabled son Dicky. Director David O. Russell nicely captures the shabby weariness of this former industrial town, and the poverty that blighted it in the 1990s, when this story takes place. Russell (*Three Kings*, *Flirting with Disaster*) doesn't make anything pretty in The Fighter -- not the town, or the people. The fights are brutal, and that goes double for any fight involving Alice and her flock of harpies. Russell's directing style is energetic and fleet-footed, and the movie is lively, thoughtful, hilarious, and moving, and frequently veers in unexpected directions. Russell aims to reimagine the boxing movie with The Fighter, to both conform to boxing movie conventions, and to upend them. In doing so, he both satisfies the expectations of the genre and moves beyond them, to create a movie that's richly complex, moving, and genuine.