(by Dustin Putman
Phenomenal performances, sturdy writing, and a great true-life story running far deeper than your typical sports tale are the elements that most stand out in "The Fighter," a longtime passion project of producer-star Mark Wahlberg's (2010's "The Other Guys"). Directed with gritty confidence and a sly underlying sense of humor by David O. Russell (2004's "I Heart Huckabees"), the film is slightly more conventional but still reminds of 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" in the way that boxing is used as a mere front for the complicated human account at its center. The common adage that blood is thicker than water may ring true, but at what point does one have to let go of familial devotion—especially if said relationships are potentially toxic—in order to do what's right, or better, for him or herself? This is the quandary at the heart of "The Fighter," one that screenwriters Scott Silver (2002's "8 Mile"), Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson make certain is painted in more than just shades of black and white. Article continues below
In 1978, professional welterweight boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) was labeled "The Pride of Lowell" in his Massachusetts mill town after going the distance with the then-unstoppable Sugar Ray Leonard and knocking him down during a much-publicized Boston match. Fifteen years later, he has become the unreliable trainer of younger half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a former boxer himself looking to make a comeback. As a documentary crew follows Dicky around for what he believes is going to depict his return to the spotlight, few of his family and acquaintances are prepared to admit how far he's fallen as his crack addiction overtakes his life. For Micky, managed and constantly strung along by an opportunistic mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who arranges fights with components out of his weight range, it takes the urging of his newfound girlfriend, headstrong bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), to begin to realize that the only way to get ahead in his career may be to let his family go.
"The Fighter" impeccably combines the pleasures of a big entertainment with the provocative food-for-thought of a motion picture with loftier goals in mind than simple diversion. It also has a little something for every audience quadrant—well, okay, little kids ought to avoid what is very much an R-rated movie. Sports fans will be taken by the underdog tale at its center, the hardships and obstacles Micky faces as he prepares to reenter the professional boxing fray, and the literally hard-hitting action in the ring. Romantics will appreciate the love story between Micky and Charlene, their relationship and the rocky dynamic between Charlene and his family given plenty of attention and working like gangbusters. The film additionally succeeds at being genuinely funny without mugging or straining for laughs; the humor comes out of director David O. Russell's sharp observations and a specific trust that his audience will recognize the authenticity of his sometimes absurd characters on display. Micky and Dicky, for example, have seven grown sisters who appear to freeload off of mother Alice while scurrying around like a Greek chorus of badly permed yentas. They're totally absurd, and yet never for a second less than wholly believable.
The occasional laughs are evened out by the seriousness of its non-fictional subjects and the high drama that comes from a tight-knit but woefully dysfunctional family falling apart and then attempting to find a middle ground. Micky feels beholden to Alice and Dicky no matter the sacrifice and in spite of them both taking advantage of him, but little by little steps out of their self-imposed tornado as Charlene presents him with a healthier, more logical alternative. Doing so isn't as easy at it sounds, however, as unforeseen developments—the ruthless outcome of the documentary being shot about Dicky; trouble with the law—simultaneously serve to tarnish the family's reputation and come as a wake-up call to their mistakes. For viewers unfamiliar with the true story, "The Fighter" ventures down many surprising avenues and reaches destinations that satisfy in their honesty while verging away from what a typical Hollywood script would do with certain aspects of the ending.
Mark Wahlberg has spent several years arduously trying to get this project off the ground, continuing a strict training regimen throughout so that he would be in proper physical shape for whenever it was greenlit. His hard work has paid off with a film that happily lives up to his hopes for it. Although Wahlberg is in the lead role of Micky Ward, it is ironically the least showy part. Considering who his brother Dicky, his mother, and his gaggle of sisters are, he is strikingly normal, a protagonist worth rooting for but also one who is overshadowed by the people around him. With that said, Wahlberg is very good in the part.
As the crack-addled Dicky, Christian Bale (2009's "Public Enemies") is livelier and more eclectic here than he's been in ages. Through most of his adult career, Bale has had a tendency of taking himself way too seriously, and it has led to a persona akin to a hardened, humorless stick in the mud. With Dicky, Bale finally lets loose; the role is still a dramatic one—Dicky is a loser hanging on to the last shreds of fame from his boxing career over a decade earlier, unable to see the damage he's causing himself and those around him—but the actor has transformed himself in every way to play the part. He even smiles now and then, which you don't see every day. Matching him minute by minute is Melissa Leo (2010's "Conviction"), dynamite casting as Alice, a loud-mouthed, over-the-top type who isn't afraid to let people know what she thinks of them. The runner of the show (read: her family and all their lives), Alice's demeanor all the more puts into question whether she cares about Micky at all, or if her attention to him is as a deceptive means of putting Dicky back into the public conscience. Leo is fun to watch in her every moment as the viewer tries to figure Alice out.
As outstanding as the other aforementioned actors are, it is Amy Adams (2010's "Leap Year") who is nothing short of mesmerizing, happy to dig into a juicy role that has been written with far more depth and consideration than the norm. Charlene never once falls into the trap of being a thankless love interest; she is an active participant in the story and one of the prominent catalysts for its turn of direction. The scene where Dicky meets her at the bar, Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile" romantically crooning over the jukebox, is an irresistible start to their love story, carried out with such a seeming effortlessness it makes one wonder why movie romances so frequently fail to achieve lift-off. Whether she's standing her ground to Micky about what she believes is right for his future, facing off with Alice and all of Micky's sisters when they show up at her doorstep ready to throw down, being confronted with the failures and disappointments of her own past, or learning to believe in the ability to change when the disgraced Dicky tells her he wants a second chance to do what's best for his brother, Charlene grows into a fascinating, complicated, multifaceted screen original. Amy Adams is sweet, tough, sexy and vulnerable, knocking things out of the park to become the bona fide soul of the film.
A lesser motion picture might have gone for the obvious in the third act, turning Dicky and Alice into easy villains as they receive their comeuppances and are left to stir in their own beds of misery as Micky finally walks away from their stronghold over him. "The Fighter," adhering fairly closely to the truth of what actually happened, takes a different route, one that is unexpected in the way it gives both Dicky and Alice moments of reflection over their misguided actions. The culminating climax and finale set at a game-changing boxing match pitting Micky against Shea Neary (Anthony Molinari) ties the relationships up a little too neatly, but does spread around an empathy for all the characters that is increasingly refreshing the more one thinks about it. Even when we don't agree or get along, we are forever, in one way or another, destined to be linked to our families. As Micky discovers, that doesn't mean he has to be defined by this fact. Gripping and well-paced, "The Fighter" is a drama with brains to go along with its ample physical and emotional punches. Even when it's still, it keeps moving.