Movie Review: “The Fighter”


Movie Review: The FighterFrom “Golden Boy” to the “Rocky” series and “Raging Bull,” families have often played a key role in boxing dramas. “The Fighter,” however, is something else entirely. It’s a black comedy-spiked family drama effectively masquerading as a boxing picture.

Set during the 1980s and perhaps the early 90s, this is the fact-based story of real life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the pride of the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts. As the film opens, Micky is the most stable member of a family marked by ignorance, innate jealousies, selfishness, drugs, extremely thick Boston accents and a certain amount of poverty and inborn dysfunction. Out of love, gratitude, and bad habit, he tolerates the antics of his outspoken and controlling mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), as well as the apparent weakness of his henpecked-beyond-all-recognition father (Jack McGee). Micky’s biggest problem, however, is his beloved half-brother and often absentee lifelong instructor in the “sweet science,” Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale). Dicky was himself a leading boxer, felled by crack cocaine and an unfortunate encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard. There’s an obvious bond between the brothers that transcends even familial ties.

After Dicky and Alice talk the boxer into accepting a hastily arranged last minute replacement for an already scheduled fight, the result is a complete disaster. A loyal but conflicted Micky then gets an offer that’s hard to ignore. It’s all-expenses paid training and management with a salary thrown in, on the condition that he move to Las Vegas and leave his family, especially Dicky, out of his boxing life. Aware that he has been betrayed to some extent, Mickey stumbles into a relationship with hard-drinking bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), a sharp-tongued college drop-out.

Micky’s family, led by a herd of sisters victimized by the worst hairstyling trends of the day, takes an immediate dislike – “hatred” is really the word here – to the alleged “MTV girl.” Eventually, Charlene takes her revenge by way of sensible advice. Micky and his father, bravely bucking the fearsome force of nature that is mother Alice, accept the offer of a professional trainer to work with him, but most definitely without her or Dicky. Meanwhile, Dicky, the father of a little boy, finds himself jailed in the wake of a humorously botched prostitution scam and the star of an HBO documentary about crack addiction.

Movie Review: The Fighter

Credited to three writers, “The Fighter” was directed by David O. Russell, who reportedly rewrote the screenplay during filming, adding humor to a project originally planned for Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”), who isn’t exactly known for his light touch. Though dark hued, particularly in the first two acts, “The Fighter” is, I’m sure, a much breezier film because of Russell, whose specialty is generating humor from darkness, death, and dysfunction as in the bitterly comic “Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees,” and “Flirting with Disaster.” “The Fighter” is definitely a drama, but there’s just enough outrageous humor to make the film a lot more interesting than your standard sports tale of tragedy and triumph.

Moreover, Russell is too smart and straightforward a director to try and compete with past boxing classics, so he cedes the violent-ballet turf to “Raging Bull.” He handles the fight sequences like the rest of the film, in a striking but unfancy manner. Instead of trying to overwhelm us with the blood and beauty of boxing, Russell concentrates on creating an eye-level and entertaining, but also believable, family drama.

And it’s a heck of a drama. The script is strong enough, but it’s the acting that propels the movie. In an already award-winning role that’s all but certain to be Oscar nominated, a once-again slimmed down Christian Bale takes a healthy break from the morose lunks he’s been playing lately and gets most of the laughs as the talkative, hyperactive, self-aggrandizing, charming, vulnerable, and, of course, deeply troubled and crack-addled Dicky. That vulnerability and hyperactivity meet in the film’s best running joke, which has Dicky literally jumping out of windows rather than be caught in a compromising situation by the fearsome Alice.

Speaking of Alice, the work here of Melissa Leo (“Frozen River,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) is the best kind of shock. Despite being very familiar with Leo’s past excellently underplayed performances, it wasn’t until the end credits that I realized it was her under the beauty-parlor do, glasses, thick Boston-esque accent and domineering attitude. It’s an amazing transformation in a difficult part – a classic David O. Russell woman who plays more than one side of the emotional fence. She’s more than a little reminiscent of such past Russell mother/terrors as Mary Tyler Moore in 1997’s “Flirting with Disaster” and, dare I say it, Alberta Watson in his ultra-squirmy Oedipal debut, 1994’s “Spanking the Monkey.”

In a more down-to-earth role, the hugely skilled Amy Adams delivers a solid performance as supportive, sexy, and stubbornly dominant Charlene. What’s best about her work here is that a character that might seem at first like the complete opposite of Alice turns out to have much the same fire as Micky’s mom which, creepy as it might sound, makes her romantic relationship with Micky more real. Also, as a member of the male hetero community writing for an online men’s mag, it is my duty to mention that the adorably auburn-haired Adams appears several times partially unclothed and underwear clad, as well as wearing very tight shorts in a number of scenes. This mention is not entirely sexist or off-topic as the movie practically makes a supporting character of her perfect backside.

In the lead role, Mark Wahlberg probably has it toughest of all. He is the calm center in a sea of crazed humanity as he fends off the constant intrusions of his troubled and manipulative brother, domineering mother, a gaggle of terrifying sisters and, later, a girlfriend no less steely in her determination than his frequently terrifying mother. He may not win any award nominations for such a non-showy role, but Wahlberg handles it with admirable commitment to his introverted champ-to-be.

None of this is to say “The Fighter” is not hampered by some flaws. The presentation is, if anything, a bit over-sunny considering the reality it portrays. There have been the usual allegations of undue inaccuracies, though the only really significant difference between the film and the actual story that I could find has to do with the real-life Dicky Eklund’s very lengthy addiction to drugs and criminality. Another issue is those thick, thick Massachusetts accents. A lot of the dialogue was impossible to understand, and that made it a bit harder to get involved for the first 15-20 minutes of the film.

Nevertheless, even being able to understand only 60% of the dialogue in some scenes, it pretty much works. Russell is a consistently interesting director and this is a movie with strong but non-flashy visuals, provided here by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who did such a spectacular job on “Let the Right One In.” It also benefits from some engaging and punchy musical choices by Russell, ranging from James Brown to the inevitable 80s hair bands. (The latter are not usually my favorite, but here, they work.)

Though this is very much an ensemble film, Christian Bale’s performance as Dicky Ecklund will likely get the lion’s share of attention as we head into awards season. The attention will be deserved, but the real delight of “The Fighter” is the way it captures how complicated the web of relationships can become in a family and how, with a little luck and openness, healing can be possible in tough circumstances. This is the sweetest movie featuring a criminal crackhead, a brutally domineering mother, and a group of perpetually angry female lowlifes with frighteningly disheveled puffy 80s hair I can imagine.

3.5 / 5 Stars
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee
Director: David O. Russell

Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:

Paramount has chosen quality over quantity for the Blu-ray release of “The Fighter,” with a strong collection of bonus material headlined by an audio commentary with director David O. Russell where he discusses the filming of the movie and how it compares to its real-life subjects. Also included is an in-depth making-of featurette (“The Warrior’s Code”), a series of interviews with Micky Ward, Dicky Eklund, and various family and friends about Lowell’s boxing history (“Keeping the Faith”), a handful of deleted scenes that are almost entirely Dicky-centric, and a DVD and digital copy of the film.


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