|PARAMOUNT PICTURES, JOJO WHILDREN |
Christian Bale, and Mark Wahlberg, right, are shown in a scene from "The Fighter."
Who is the title character of "The Fighter"?
The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling welterweight boxer from the working-class town of Lowell, Mass. Not even a has-been, Micky is a never-was, north of 30 years old and viewed as a stepping stone for up-and-coming boxers. After a particularly bad fight against an opponent who outweighs him by 20 pounds, his heart just isn't in it anymore. Maybe it's time to give it up, move on with his life, settle down.
The title just as easily could refer to Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), Micky's half-brother and trainer, a former boxer himself whose shining moment was going the distance but losing a late-'70s bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. Even with a debilitating crack cocaine addiction and multiple stints in jail, Dicky is affectionately known as "the pride of Lowell" by its inhabitants. An HBO camera crew follows him, but the movie they're making is not, as Dicky claims, about his attempt at an in-ring comeback.
"The Fighter" also is a fitting description of Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), mother and manager of both Micky and Dicky. She has steered both of her sons' careers with only flashes of success, but not for lack of trying.
It even applies to Charlene (Amy Adams), a college-educated woman who has scratched out a living working mostly in bars. Courted by Micky, she's the one who helps him see that his family loyalty is holding him back more than anything else.
There are a lot of fighters in "The Fighter," which is based on a true story, and the movie's strength is in the gritty performances that bring these characters to life.
Bale, who is nearly as frail as he was when he infamously lost more than 60 pounds to portray a chronic insomniac in "The Machinist" (2004), practically writhes and wriggles his way off the screen as Dicky. Always moving, always talking, Dicky is a long way from the severe characters Bale has been portraying with regularity over the past several years. He makes Dicky both likable and reprehensible, and tragic above all else. I found myself rooting for his redemption even more than Micky's in-ring success.
The two are inextricably linked, with Dicky living vicariously through his little brother, getting a second shot at the career defeated by his own demons.
Wahlberg's role is essentially that of the straight man, easily overlooked but vital to the film's success. All of the characters are defined through their relationship with Micky. Others might grab your attention first (not always in a good way—see Micky's seven sisters, who come across as parodies of daytime talk show guests), but the movie needs that rock, that emotional center to ground the action, and that is exactly what Wahlberg provides.
Wahlberg, also credited as a producer, spent several years trying to get this movie made and a like amount of time training. That determination serves him well in portraying Micky in and out of the ring.
Leo is strong, as well, as the domineering mother who truly does have her sons' best interests at heart and doesn't realize just how controlling and detrimental she can be.
The big surprise is Adams, who is cast against type as the sassy, sexy Charlene and delivers a performance that could change the way we view her as an actress going forward.
A good chunk of the comedy the movie offers comes from Jack McGee as Micky's father, a kind-hearted, supportive man who long ago admitted defeat to the strong personalities of the many women in his life.
Director David O. Russell, working with Wahlberg for the third time, following "Three Kings" (1999) and "I Heart Huckabees" (2004), and his trio of screenwriters focus on the family drama as much as the boxing, a wise choice given that the underdog sports story has been done countless times, and the presentation of the fights—shown as if they are excerpts from TV broadcasts—removes some of the tension.
"The Fighter" isn't revolutionary, but Russell's tweaking of the formula and stellar work by the actors, especially Bale, elevate it above many of its peers.
Greg's Grade: B+
(Rated R for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality. 116 minutes.)