Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw Reviews The Fighter
There are a lot of people who will go into The Fighter expecting to see the next Rocky or Cinderella Man – i.e., blue-collar fighter overcomes personal hurdles and/or demons to become a champion and American icon against all odds.
Well, imagine taking that cinematic cliche and rubbing it in the dirt while still managing to give it a touch of wit and a heavy dose of charm. If you can visualize that strange image, you’ll understand exactly what director David O. Russell has created with The Fighter.
This true-life story follows “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxer living in the working-class town of Lowell, Massachusetts during the early ’90s. Mickey – labeled a “stepping stone” in the boxing ring – lives in the shadow of his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer who is known round town as “The Pride of Lowell” for a famous losing bout in which he supposedly knocked down the great Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring before being defeated.
Dicky is Mickey’s idol and his trainer – little brother heeds whatever big brother tells him to do. The boys’ mother Alice (Melissa Leo) works as Mickey’s manager, making Mickey’s career a nice tight family operation – one that has already hit the rocks and is falling apart. Dicky is a full-blown drug addict; Alice is a drinking, chain-smoking dragon-mother who is still living off the glow of Dicky’s expired fame. Mickey can’t seem to navigate his way through this quagmire of dreams, obligations, family and loyalty – that is, of course, until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a local barmaid who wants to help Mickey get his head on straight.
However, despite all the drama and chaos surrounding him at the end of the day Mickey Ward can only be a champion if he himself decides to step up and be one – inside and outside the ring.
The Fighter is a rare movie in terms of its quality, but it is certainly even more of a rarity within the sports drama sub-genre. Tales of athletic conquest lend themselves so easily to the dramatic side of cinema, yet David O. Russell, along with his exceptional cast, has managed to craft a sports drama that is actually more of a stripped-down dark comedy about the delusions and realities of fame, fortune and success in America. Sure, the basic framework is the same as that of Rocky Balboa’s story (with Massachusetts grit substituting for Philadelphia grit), but it is the shape and tone of the flesh laid over those bones that distinguishes The Fighter from so many other movies like it.
This film is a character piece, pure and simple. While Mickey’s stumble and ultimate rise through the boxing ranks provide the narrative arch, the film is focused squarely on the players riding along for the journey – Mickey, Dicky, Alice, and Charlene. It’s clear that Russell came across this story and recognized the value of unique and vibrant characters like these (I refer to both the real-life Ward/Eklund family as much as their onscreen counterparts), and not just the generic sports story that has been so thoroughly mined by Hollywood.
What we get here are characters who are unapologetically flawed and trashy (even sweet Charlene defines herself as a screw up who partied away her chance at college) – but they’re also characters who are refreshingly raw, lively, and quite hilarious. The Fighter solicits more hoots and belly-rolling laughs than it does tears or goosebumps – and while there are a few heavy moments, those moments are never exploited for dramatic weight. Instead of working you over for the emotional payoff, Russell instead lets the audience’s empathy for these characters carry the emotion for him – no need to hit anybody over the head with meaning. Rather than trying to tug at your feelings, screenplay/story writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington make the smart move of injecting life into their characters and plenty of sparks into the whip-smart “colloquial” dialogue traded back and forth like daggers by the main players.
The cast (for the most part) do a phenomenal job bringing these rich and crazy characters to life – a crucial task in a film like this. Thankfully, Russell is working with some of the best actors in the business and they manage to hit the right stride.
There’s already word that Christian Bale will be nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Dicky Eklund, and the recognition is wholly deserved. While not exactly the focus, Dicky is undoubtedly the driving force of this film, and the usually-reserved Bale manages to exude the mad (and infectious) charisma of his subject even in Dicky’s worst moments, at once creating a heroic dunderhead and (as revealed by an appearance of the actual Dicky Eklund in the film) a pretty accurate nod to the spirit of his real-life counterpart. Bale goes so far as to nail down Dicky’s lanky physicality perfectly, a subtlety of performance that is highlighted in one great scene in which Dicky and Mickey compare their fighting styles.
By contrast, Mark Wahlberg pretty much portrays the same quiet, semi-vulnerable tough-guy persona we’ve seen in films like Four Brothers or We Own The Night. I’ll leave it to you to decide if the close proximity between Wahlberg and Ward’s actual working-class Massachusetts upbringings give the actor’s portrayal “authenticity,” but for my part, I have to criticize Wahlberg for letting the supporting players outshine the lead so brightly.
While a lot of focus will be on two leading men’s performances, for me it was actually the women of The Fighter who stole the show. Indie actress Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable as Mickey’s dragon-lady mother, Alice. With her withered townie look, perpetual veil of cigarette smoke and grating voice practically hissing each and every syllable in her New England brogue, Leo is a scene-stealer of the best kind. Amy Adams is handed the tall order of trading barbs with both Leo and Bale throughout the film, and here she proves just why she has been twice nominated for an Oscar so early in her budding career. Charlene is that “girl who gets the guy” type, but she is no Adrian to Mickey’s Rocky, by any means. If anything, Charlene is a fearless, more level-headed (read: no B.S.) version of Alice, and her confrontations with the dragon mother and Dicky’s gang of sisters (an awesome ensemble of character actresses) make for the most hilarious and entertaining scenes in the movie.
Supporting performances by Jack McGee and Mickey O’Keefe – as the two belabored father-figures shoehorned into helping Mickey along to greatness, while keeping the tainted side of the family at bay – are equally strong (and funny).
Russell’s direction wisely keeps the focus set on these primary characters, and never wanders off into the tempting realm of sports action. In the boxing sequences (which are staged to mimic ’90s-era HBO broadcasts, to good effect), the director keeps the camera tight on the faces and bodies of his primary cast, letting their expressions and gestures (whether they’re in the ring or in the crowd) convey the context and story behind the sports spectacle – which is the entire point of the film.
Outside of the ring, Russell makes his version of Lowell look gritty and real – and I’m not talking that “polished grit” you see in films like Ron Howard’s Depression-era Cinderella Man. From the “costumes,” to the terrain, to the photography, cinematography and the (semi-)unflattering physical appearance of the actors (even the lovely Adams flashes some pale, fleshy curves and a washed-out look) this polished movie looks the part of an unpolished indie film, again relying on characters and acting instead of production values to carry it. A wise decision.
All in all, The Fighter is one of the top movie experiences of the year for me. Great performances, great filmmaking and a genuinely enjoyable journey following characters you’ll likely have a hard time forgetting. A bonafide must-see this holiday season.
Check out the trailer for The Fighter: