A tough tale told with tenderness
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 17, 2010
If you think "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" define the alpha and omega of boxing movies, think again. David O. Russell's "The Fighter" proves there's still punch in the genre, especially when a filmmaker tells a familiar story in a brand-new way.
In this case, the story is based on a true one. In the 1970s, welterweight boxer Dicky Eklund, known as the "Pride of Lowell," made local history in that working-class Massachusetts city by sending Sugar Ray Leonard to the mat. Later, lost in a vortex of drug addiction and running petty hustles, Dicky trained his half-brother Micky Ward, eventually to a world welterweight championship.
The title character of "The Fighter" might be Micky - played here in a straight-up, stalwart, hugely sympathetic performance by Mark Wahlberg. But it could just as easily pertain to the hardscrabble Dicky, especially as he's channeled by Christian Bale. Down 30 pounds, Bale is nothing less than revelatory as the skinny, skeeved-out crackhead who, against all odds, commands the audience's affection and, improbably, a few laughs.
Filmed like an HBO boxing documentary, "The Fighter" possesses the light-footed dexterity and spontaneity of the most sensitive pugilist, circling its characters with equal parts discretion and confrontational zeal. Just as it's ambiguous who the Fighter is in "The Fighter," it's difficult to pin down which fight its protagonists are waging.
On one level, Russell constructs a classic come-from-behind story of focus, discipline and triumph, as Micky puts his head down and, with the love of a pugnacious redhead named Charlene (Amy Adams), goes for the gold. On another level, "The Fighter" chronicles how Micky fought free of the sprawling, mostly female family that exploited him and kept him back - mostly at the hands of his domineering mother, Alice (an unrecognizably teased-and-bleached Melissa Leo). And on yet another level, "The Fighter" is about Dicky's fight to overcome the demons that threatened to destroy not only him but also the brother he holds dear.
The filial tensions and loyalties that drive "The Fighter" form its most meaningful core, especially as they're brought to life by Wahlberg and Bale, each of whom disappears into his character with uncanny ease.
"The Fighter" isn't just about one or two men, as captivating as they are, but about Lowell's own scrappy, post-industrial milieu. The atmospherics are flawless: When the sweating, strung-out Dicky is sparring and cracking wise with his addict friends in a seedy apartment, Russell films it with such vividness, you can almost feel the heat outside.
As manic as Dicky is, Micky is just as quiet and self-effacing. Although Bale gets the juiciest scenes, Wahlberg makes just as big an impact with fewer jacked-up flourishes - like when he takes Charlene to "Belle Epoque" (which he pronounces "epicue") and, when a fellow theater patron mentions that the cinematography is supposed to be beautiful, he responds with a shy, "Oh, cool."
Zing are sure to go the strings of viewers' hearts at that moment. And luckily, the filmmakers treat our emotional investment with respect and unexpected tenderness. As pathologically dysfunctional as the Eklund-Ward clan is - thanks in large part to Alice's toxic mix of denial and ferocious protectiveness - Russell chooses not to demonize the tribe. Instead, "The Fighter" becomes a tough, bare-knuckled, compassionate meditation on every family's rope-a-dope between tribal bonds and self-definition. Both, it turns out, are worth going to the mat for.
Contains profanity, drug content, violence and sexuality.