David O. Russell’s The Fighter is another fine entry into the ever-expanding recent subgenre of Massachusetts-based films (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, The Town) as a labor of love on the part of its star and producer, Mark Wahlberg. I was on hand at the World Premiere during the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles last night where Wahlberg came out and introduced the film, claiming that he would travel to the house of anyone who didn’t like the movie and do hard labor in exchange for the time spent watching it. A ridiculous claim, but obviously fueled by his passion for this project, one that was in development for four years and saw multiple actors and directors – including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Darren Aronofsky – drop out before its final configuration was decided. The Fighter is a strong piece of work that benefits from the passion of everyone involved and rides not so much on the style of the director but on the performances of its actors.
While Wahlberg is the one who – behind the scenes, anyway – appeared most dedicated to getting this movie made, it’s ironically the other actors that are almost certain to go home with acting accolades come February. If nothing else, this movie will be remembered for a phenomenal performance from Christian Bale (a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination and probably a win) and exceptional work from Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. It’s almost unfair – Wahlberg actually does some really good work (erasing any doubts cast by The Happening that he is, in fact, a talented actor), but he’s outshined by the supporting cast that surrounds him.
The film tells the real-life story of “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg), a blue collar boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, trained by his older half-brother Dick “Dickie” Ecklund (Bale). Micky’s idolized Dickie for years, since Dickie was once a professional boxer and knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a match, earning him the nickname “the pride of Lowell.” Trouble is, now Dickie’s a crack addict, and though he claims the camera crew following him around is documenting his comeback, they’re actually there filming a documentary on the dangers of crack cocaine. Micky has a huge family; led by his manager/matriarch Alice (Leo), and including his gaggle of seemingly jobless sisters and half-sisters, they hinder Micky from living up to his full potential and argue constantly with his new bartender girlfriend Charlene (Adams).
The film’s title points more to the battle between family members than boxing, although when Russell does bring the camera into the ring for (essentially) the final act, the effect is adequate enough for any sports movie fan. Truly, though, The Fighter is a story about family – especially the relationship between half-brothers Micky and Dickie. Wahlberg and Bale play spectacularly off each other, and Bale’s drug-addled wiry frame (in another physical performance reminiscent of his massive weight loss for The Machinist) slinks around the screen like a serpent, leaving the audience always unsure of his reliability but never wavering about his familial love. I must admit, being completely unfamiliar with the real-life events of this story, I had no idea how Dickie would fare as the film progressed – but in case you’re like me I won’t ruin the story for you. Instead, I’ll just say that I was pleased with his narrative arc; in fact, the entire movie is a wholly satisfying experience. The movie is not about the outcome of the final fight – any movie watcher can guess how that’ll turn out – but it’s about watching this messed up family unit put aside their differences and work together for a common goal.
Recent Academy darling Amy Adams seems poised to be nominated again, this time for her depiction of Charlene, the “tell-it-like-it-is” college dropout turned bartender. She’s a great influence on Micky and imbues the character with a strength sorely lacking in female characters on screen these days. She’s not a feminist icon or anything – far from it, as her actions in the movie mostly stem from her relationship with a man – but regardless, she plays one of the most grounded characters in the movie and injects the film with a much-needed shot of heart. Melissa Leo also does a terrific job as the overprotective Alice, a character we alternately despise and sympathize with. There’s talk of Leo being nominated as well, but at the risk of turning this into an Oscar prognostication piece, I’ll just agree that it’s a legitimate possibility.
The soundtrack deserves a brief mention, effectively blending a mix of 80’s rock like Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” with more recent tracks like The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Strip My Mind” (a song I’ve never heard in a movie before) and The Heavy’s currently-omnipresent “How You Like Me Now?” Though the film is reminiscent of Rocky in some ways, the music wisely stays away from the soaring tunes that worked well in the 70’s but would reek of cheese in today’s moviegoing marketplace.
Ultimately, The Fighter is an enjoyable character-based sports drama that succeeds because it concentrates more on relationships than faceless brawls. It’s a huge crowd pleaser, and the audience at the AFI Fest totally dug it. That type of reaction is to be expected by an underdog film, but this one has a bit more to chew on than more “feel good” fare like Wahlberg’s 2006 sports drama Invincible (which I also liked quite a bit). The formula is somewhat predictable but the direction is skillful, culling great performances from actors that signify The Fighter as one of the best-acted films of the year. Until next time…