The Fighter (2010) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, drug content, some violence and sexuality
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Mickey O'Keefe
Cameo: Sugar Ray Leonard
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Review published December 22, 2010
The Fighter is based on the true story of the rise to prominence of junior welterweight fighter "Irish" Micky Ward (Wahlberg, Max Payne). Micky has always stood in the shadow of his older half-brother Dicky (Bale, Terminator Salvation), who, in 1978, became their working class Massachusetts town's pride and joy when he would go on to fight the champion, Sugar Ray Leonard and knock him down. Well, he used to be the pride and joy, before he became a crack addict and two-bit criminal.
Things don't look so good for Micky when we meet him, as he has suffered a string of losses, and he's been regarded primarily as a stepping stone for more prominent fighters to easily defeat on their way up the ladder to the championship, partially due to the poor management he's been given by his own mother (Leo, Mr. Woodcock) who sees the next paycheck as more important than planning for a rewarding career. Now Micky, along with newfound supportive girlfriend Charlene (Adams, Doubt), is wondering whether to stick with the family that may not be able to foster his growth or turn his back on them for more traditional trainers and managers.
Given that pretty much all cinematic portraits of boxers, and of sports figures in general, are underdog-makes-good stories, The Fighter probably isn't' going to be surprising from a plotline perspective, though the fact that many don't follow boxing in most classes below heavyweight may mean Micky Ward's tale is fresh and new to most. But it isn't what's being said so much as the way you say it that's ultimately important from a narrative perspective, and it's in this area that director David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings), working from a script by Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Mod Squad), Paul Tamasy (Walking Across Egypt, Air Bud) and first-timer Eric Johnson, eventually shines. Not that they could do it without spot-on performances, which everyone in the cast gives, with special consideration to Christian Bale, who dropped quite a bit of weight for the role (though not quite to Machinist levels) and Melissa Leo for Oscar-caliber work. They're so good that Wahlberg's fine physical performance is overshadowed, though it should be seen as one of his finest.
Russell perfectly directs this straightforward piece by allowing his very talented troupe of actors to inhabit their roles so that, at the time the fights take place, we feel every nuance of what that fight means to each of them individually, including the town of Lowell, Massachusetts. They all seem to have something at stake every time Micky steps into the ring. At the end of the film, you realize that the movie isn't about Micky's road to the spotlight so much as the redemption of a family who have fought and fought to make something of themselves, if only they could come together to focus as a unit, rather than fragment and bicker until they end up defeating themselves. Particularly impressive is Russell's use of actual Beta video cameras similar to those used at the time the fights actually took place, which gives the bouts the real-time feel of a live on HBO or ESPN broadcast. And these aren't some Rocky-style battle of titans, but real boxing where the actors make contact and re-enact the actual fights as they were captured years ago.
The Fighter is the best kind of feel-good movie -- one that keeps its feet on the ground by portraying people overcoming large obstacles despite their flaws and foibles. Even though life isn't perfect, there's still room for redemption along the way, whether through making something of oneself or by guiding the path of another. At the same time, it's about someone finding his own path through life, finally realizing that those around him cannot live your life for you or through you. When faced with feelings of self-doubt, a dysfunctional support group, or just dumb luck, keep on striving to be the best. The title of The Fighter isn't just about what Micky does in the ring -- or, really, just about Micky.
©2010 Vince Leo