Generally speaking, sports movies tend to be rather cookie cutter products. The Boxing Film, though, is a sub-genre that has often been able to rise above the genre framework and touch on greater themes. For all the goofiness and ham-fisted moments its series would later deliver, the original Rocky
film, for example, eschewed the need to culminate in a championship victory, as the story was about the character going the distance against all odds. Scorsese
's masterful Raging Bull
uses Jake LaMotta's pugilistic career as corollary mile markers to his life's ups and downs. Jim Sheridan
's The Boxer
spins a tale of a former IRA volunteer ( Daniel Day-Lewis
) trying to go straight in Belfast, and Ron Howard
's Cinderella Man
told the story of a father doing whatever he could to hold his family together during the Great Depression. All of these films simply used boxing as a backdrop to more universally relatable human stories, and did it well. The Fighter
is another film very much following in this tradition. The film tells the true story of "Irish" Micky Ward's inspiring boxing career, and the family that supported him along the way. Growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts in the shadow of his brother Dicky Eklund ( Christian Bale
), Micky ( Mark Wahlberg
) works a road construction crew and boxes part-time. Managed by his overbearing mother Alice ( Treme
's Melissa Leo
) and trained by Dicky, Micky attempts to make a name for himself in the sport where Dicky had already earned the title "The Pride of Lowell" for his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard back in the 70s.
But this film isn't a tale of sibling rivalry. Micky genuinely loves his brother and looks up to him. In fact, the entire Eklund/Ward family sees Dicky as an infallible hero in the face of his obvious, crippling addiction to crack-cocaine. In the film, Dicky is followed by an HBO documentary crew for a film which upon release was titled High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell
. Dicky and his family believe the film will tell the story of his comeback and return to boxing. It is Dicky's crack addiction, and Alice's mismanagement, that Micky's charged with overcoming. Upon meeting and falling in love with Charlene ( Amy Adams
), Micky begins to figure out his life.
I would be remiss in going any further in this review without calling out the top reason you should see The Fighter
: Christian Bale. Bale has shown time and time again why he's one of the absolute finest actors in the game, while unbelievably never receiving an Oscar nod. If there is a role for which such an award nomination (and win, in my opinion) should be warranted, it is Bale's portrayal of Dicky Eklund here.
Firstly, and worth mentioning, Bale manages to achieve what most actors in "Boston" films never seem able to do: pull off a believable accent. Lowell is a very different place from Boston, and Bale gets the nuance down to a science. The Boston accent thing is a small pet peeve, but one that riles me up something fierce, so I was happy that the two leads here (Wahlberg coming to it naturally as a local) sounded believable.
More importantly, Bale seemed to completely disappear into the character of Dicky. I've personally spent a fair amount of time around Lowell and other such localities, and the degree to which Dicky was instantly
recognizable and authentic was astounding. I could go to a bar a block away from my apartment and meet three dudes just like that. Apart from capturing that local flair, what was remarkable was Bale's ability to balance the drug-addled, burnt out side of Dicky while allowing glimpses of his true, lovable personality to shine through. That was so key to the success of this story.
The rest of the cast serves the film quite admirably as well. While Mark Wahlberg has never quite grabbed me as a leading man in his previous work, I've always enjoyed him when he lands a role that plays to his strengths. One of those strengths is playing a Boston local, and the role of Micky Ward has many parallels to Wahlberg's own life. Both grew up in very tough Massachusetts neighborhoods, and both were one of nine children. It's clearly a role Wahlberg could relate to, and it shows on screen. Most importantly he's not an actor capable of upstaging the likes of Christian Bale. While on its face the story is Micky's, it's just as much the story of Dicky's struggle with addiction and redemption. Had Wahlberg not been willing to play second fiddle to the powerhouse of Bale, it could have become a muddled mess.
For as much as The Fighter
does right, there are missteps. The cadre of Micky and Dicky's sisters were handled poorly, portrayed more as a brainless gang of white trash caricatures, only good for comic scenes of shit-talking and girl-fighting. While I totally bought some of the actresses individually, the group was treated as one single, dumb character, which seemed antithetical to the realism of the rest of the film.
Another gripe: the way things come together towards the end seemed rushed and forced. There were resolutions between characters that needed to happen to take the final step in the story, but they were done so hastily as to, again, break the ongoing themes of realism the rest of the film fought so hard to deliver.
What really sets The Fighter
apart from the other films I mentioned at the start of this review is the dual storyline of Micky and Dicky. Micky's story would have been enough for a decent boxing movie. But the second storyline of Dicky coming to terms with his addiction and moving on from his former glory years added a much more compelling element to this film. If the performances of Bale and others aren't enough to entice you, David O. Russell
's shooting of the actual boxing action is also superbly done and a worthy draw in itself, if you don't care for that deep stuff. The man in front of me at the theater
kept shouting during the previews (possibly into the bluetooth headset crammed into his ear), "Bring on the Rocky shit!" and he certainly left happily when it was over.