Friday, February 25, 2011

The Fighter


Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

Based on the true story of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, David O. Russell's The Fighter features Mark Wahlberg as Ward and Christian Bale as his brother, Dicky Eklund, a former small-time boxer who splits his time training Micky and engaging in a serious crack habit. Ward is a stand-up, regular guy who struggles with pursuing his fighting career on his own and being tied to his dysfunctional family who hold him back, particularly when he meets and falls in love with a supportive and headstrong bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams).

Though I tend to enjoy sports movies, it really takes one with a different angle or strong story to impress me, and The Fighter completely exceeded all of my expectations. I didn't expect that the story would be nearly as compelling it turned out to be. The challenges that Ward faces are far beyond his actual fighting career; in fact, the fight scenes are practically secondary. It is the complicated relationships he has in his life, particularly with his family, that were really at the forefront. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is the rough and mercenary matriarch of a family of 9 children by multiple men who clearly favors Dicky over Micky, her youngest. Dicky's golden moment was in 1978 when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and has been planning his comeback since, only he's actually doing drugs all the time and becoming a shell of his former self. Though he is an unreliable trainer for Micky, he and Alice, Micky's manager, still won't cede any power to anyone nor will let Micky make his own decisions, despite their increasingly bad judgments that don't take his best interests into account. Micky's relationship with Charlene is the first healthy thing to enter his adult life, and though she is as opinionated as Alice, pushes Micky to do what he feels is best for him. There are so many rich story lines in The Fighter that it doesn't fit into a specific genre. Despite its sports themes, it's not a sports movie nor is it simply a family drama.

Christian Bale is amazing as Dicky, who is a complicated character, and there isn't a lot of sympathy one can muster up for him. He swings on an emotional pendulum that is nearly exhausting to watch at times because he looks and acts like he is constantly jacked up on 25 energy drinks. Only he lacks so much self-awareness that he has no idea that the HBO film crew following him around is filming an expose, rather than the "comeback documentary" he thinks it is. Though Bale's performance is flashy and front-and-center, I think that Wahlberg did a fantastic job as the straight man. It's not easy to play opposite a character like Dicky and still be notable, but Wahlberg pulls it off admirably. I actually think he's really underrated in general because he has proven that he can play a variety of roles. There are a lot of women in The Fighter, thanks to Micky's harem of tacky sisters, but the two main female roles were perfectly cast. Adams' Charlene is down to earth and foul mouthed, but has an air of respectability and goodness. Leo's Alice is a little more complex, torn between her allegiance to her deadbeat son and deep down, trying to be a good mother when all she has around her is chaos (much of it self-inflicted.)

David O. Russell, though rumored to be difficult to work with, has also proven that he can direct a varied genre of films, from a small independent film like Spanking the Monkey to a war film like Three Kings or even an "existential comedy" like I Heart Huckabees (incidentally, one of my favorite films of 2004). Regardless of theme or scope, he is able to take material that doesn't have a lot of flash and still make it seem epic; though with such a simplicity and richness of character that his films feel intimate and independent. Frankly, I think he is currently one of the best working directors.

I saw The Fighter on a three-film day and though I knew I'd liked Russell's previous films, still thought that, out of the other two films I was seeing, it would land in a distant third. Surprisingly, it was the last film I saw that day and the one I liked the best, and even beyond the obvious boxing similarity, The Fighter is a film I would compare in some ways to Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull both story and performance-wise. I highly recommend it and encourage those who may write it off as simplicity a "sports movie" to give it a chance, because The Fighter is a lot more robust than one may think.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

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