REVIEW: The Fighter [2010]

“I thought you were my mother too”

It’s been a rough decade for director David O. Russell between highly publicized blow-ups with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin and his latest, Nailed, being shelved after financing fell through to the point he couldn’t finish filming. So, it is almost a miracle he was given the opportunity to even fathom helming Scott Silver’s scripted The Fighter once Darren Aronofsky backed away after having completed his own ‘fighting’ film with The Wrestler. And with the rave reviews from critics and audiences both, you have to start giving Russell the benefit of the doubt by categorizing those on-set fights as aberrations to his professionalism. Not only has Mark Wahlberg now worked on three movies of his, the temper storms of Christian Bale never escaped this time around—although I do believe staging a battle of Russell vs. Bale was a missed, albeit unnecessary, publicity stunt. Instead, his direction and ability to recreate Lowell, MA and the story’s central family becomes just as important to the movie as his stars’ magnificent portrayals.

After my friend had seen the film, he told me it had become his darkhorse Best Picture Oscar winner, calling it a “total crowd-pleaser” and “Rocky with crack”. He was spot-on and, dare I say, almost selling it short since I’d argue it out-Rocky’s Rocky itself. Based of the true story of Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his unique family, The Fighter is an underdog tale in the best sense of the word. There is familial redemption, surprising success against all odds, and drug abuse reformation. While Ward’s journey up the ladder to get a welterweight title shot is the main crux to the plot, his personal life becomes unavoidably intertwined. His half-brother Dicky (Bale) is a former boxer himself—once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard—who is now a crackhead, screw-up, reliving glory days through lies and fiction, brainwashing his own mind to believe an HBO documentary crew following him is filming a comeback shot and not the look into addiction they are; his seven sisters from two fathers constantly buzz about with superiority complexes; his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) is marginalized by the family, a brood she despises anyway; and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) usurps control over his life whenever possible.

But through all the craziness, Micky is constantly in a family first mindset. There is no way he could not with the close-knit, volatile bunch surrounding him with praise, disgust, and whatever emotion they feel will prey on his guilt to stay under their thumb. Dicky might have taught him everything he knows inside the ring, but once the addiction takes over his life, Micky needs to step back and realize his brother, coupled with a money-hungry mother, is only making things worse. They get him the HBO and ESPN fights, but each opportunity is merely for the guy on the other end of the ring, relegating Ward as a stepping-stone up. When they force him into a fight with a guy twenty pounds heavier, he complies, knowing they need the payday just as clearly as he knows he’ll get destroyed. Alice and Dicky are cut from the same cloth, forever looking for fame, publicity, and the media; they know the older boy wrecked his chance at being the ‘Pride of Lowell’, so they make sure to do whatever it takes—whether it’s best for Micky or not—to make sure the youngest doesn’t fall short.

It is the introduction of Charlene to the equation that finally initiates a change in Micky’s mentality, realizing he needs to stick up for himself and do what he knows is right for his career. Even to this day, the real Charlene can’t stand the sisters and Alice for their abrasive nature, bully mentality, and what they did to her man. Amy Adams embodies those feelings of loathing along with the love she has for Micky, and the compassion to understand these monsters’ importance in his life despite their destructive qualities. It’s a role very much against her Tinkerbell typecasting and hopefully will open doors to challenging work in the future since she deserves such. A big help to the performance, however, is Leo’s transformation into Alice. Adams has no choice but to play angry against this manipulative woman always seeking pity, always cutting down her family (poor Jack McGee, as husband George, constantly barraged with verbal and physical abuse), always holding onto past successes (Dicky’s claim to fame being more important than Micky’s potential) before getting behind future ones. She is the evil that drives everyone.

Despite the fireworks from the ladies—and I don’t want to forget the scrappy Dendrie Taylor as ‘Red Dog’ Eckland getting punched almost as much as Micky—Russell knows the film is about the strained relationship of love and hate between brothers. Right from the opening sequence of Wahlberg and Bale walking the town of Lowell as cameras follow and townsfolk laud adoration upon them, we see what they mean to each other once the drugs and bad decisions are in the background. The ex-Funky Bunch leader shows again how impressive he can be when playing city street-type characters, allowing emotions to ring true beneath his tough exterior rather than induce laughter as he tries to be a suburbanite science teacher. You believe his conflicted feelings towards every family member, his trepidation and anticipation for each fight, and the punches he throws and takes, (supposedly full contact for realism). But, while he may be the star, Russell never forgets that it’s Dicky who becomes the heart and soul, even if Mickey O’Keefe, (police officer and trusted co-trainer, playing himself), refuses to acknowledge the fact.

Bale hopes to transform from junkie to savior, using his love for family to finally get out of the gutter and make good on his promises and failed dreams. Watching the real Dicky Eckland at the end credits shows just how impeccable Bale’s performance was, getting the ticks and vocal pattern down and letting the man’s humanity ring true when his mistakes could easily have overpowered any good accomplished. Micky Ward’s unlikely journey to the top not only changed him, but also the lives of those around him. Charlene finally had the opportunity to leave her party girl reputation behind and live up to the college aspirations she once had; Alice is able to see the error of her ways—although perhaps not fix them—and realize she has nine kids, not one; and Dicky uses what little he has left to help the young boy who grew up idolizing his every move find the victory he never had. The simple fact Micky never gave up, never let a broken hand and extra weight pull him into retirement, saved Dicky’s life. The Eckland/Wards may not be the Cleavers, but at least they know love exists beneath the publicly ridiculed insanity we all see.

The Fighter 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] Left to right: Mickey O’Keefe plays himself, Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, and Christian Bale plays Dicky Eklund in THE FIGHTER. Photo credit: JoJo Whilden © 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Amy Adams plays Charlene Fleming in THE FIGHTER. Photo credit: JoJo Whilden © 2010 Fighter, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Melissa Leo stars as Alice in Paramount Pictures’ The Fighter (2010)

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