The Fighter may look like a sports film, but that’s only a facade. Once you start to watch it, the film slowly reveals itself to not only be a film where boxing is part of the story, but it’s also a borderline dark comedy character study in sports film clothing. It was definitely refreshing to see that David O. Russell didn’t take this story and turn it into what very easily could have been a by-the-numbers take on an inspiring true story. Instead, the story just unfolds before you.
This particular yarn is based on the true story of welterweight boxing champion “Irish” Mickey Ward in his years before turning pro. Set in the early 90’s the film starts out like a documentary as a film crew follows Mickey and his older brother Dicky around the streets of their Massachusetts neighborhood. Micky gets through his days doing blue collar work while he tries to become more than just a stepping stone for boxers to use as they move up through the ranks. The film crew that you see is actually filming a story on Dicky who was once the pride of the town. Dicky is a former boxer who had a single moment of glory in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky is a mess pure and simple but to Mickey he’s an idol. There’s almost a hero worship there, much to the detriment of Mickey.
Mickey tries to work his way up the ranks of the boxing world with Dicky serving as his trainer and their mother Alice serving as his manager. Mickey’s career is a family business but family loyalty can only get you so far. Once Mickey meets Charlene, he realizes that in order to get a real shot at a true boxing career, he’s going to have to man up and make the necessary changes and actually believe in himself enough to know that he can make it.
The subtle filming style used in The Fighter was a nice change of pace. The viewer isn’t force fed a moral tale or made to endure just how hard the main characters lives were. Instead the film lets the viewer decide if you liked them, hated them, or even liked to hate them. Mark Wahlberg gives a strong performance here as Mickey. Now, 9 roles out of 10, there isn’t a big stretch with him. That being said, I love Mark Wahlberg. Except for The Happening but that’s another story altogether. I think he has skills as an actor but I haven’t seen proof of him really flexing those muscles in terms of becoming a chameleon to his characters. Here, I feel he stretches more than he normally does and is able to convey the overall disenchantment Mickey feels towards where his career as a boxer is headed. You genuinely feel for the guy. While he was able to breathe life into this character on the screen, he was unfortunately overshadowed. Mickey was the main character, but the spotlight really shone on the characters of Dicky and Alice.
Christian Bale has proven, at least to mem time and again that he can pretty much take on any role. Love him or hate him, you have to agree that the man has talent. He once again transformed his body to take on the appearance of a drug addicted former favorite son. He looks absolutely wretched and that’s a compliment of the highest order here. His portrayal of Dicky was nothing short of mesmerizing. The gaunt face, bony frame and sketchy mannerisms of a drug addict were all present and accounted for. Even though he looked terrible, he was just as stellar as he usually is and it was a nice change of pace to see him downplay a role rather than overplay one with the gravelly voices of Batman and John Connor. This character shows us once again how committed to his craft Bale really is and that his talent is not just skin deep.
Melissa Leo tackles the role of the matriarch of the family, Alice. Alice is THE mother from hell in every aspect. She domineering and clearly defines her role as the commander in chief of the family, but also has the ability to, in an instant, play the victim and wrap you up in a nice thick warm blanket of motherly guilt. It’s a fine line to walk and she pulls it off so effortlessly it seems like those qualities are par for the course with her. Alice is not someone to mess with. Even her sons know this. At one point in the film Dicky jumps out of the back window of a house because she came knocking at the door. Melissa Leo’s transformation into Alice has her with the big hair and chain smoking through the whole movie. She may not be big in stature but what she lacks in size she makes up for in presence.
Amy Adams has won her fair share of different awards and has been nominated for an Oscar twice, so her skills as an actor aren’t really in question here. I was more interested to see how she would fair up against the other headliners. Charlene, in all of her flawed glory is the one who really rights Mickey’s ship and sets him on a proper course. None of the other characters in this film are perfect and Charlene is no exception. Working as a bar maid at one of the local haunts, she admits to throwing away her chance at a college education. You can see the regret she has for her bad decisions but also the acceptance she has for her actions and at no time does she come across as the woe-is-me type. She’s a strong female lead here, but plays it with an understated grace.
Most sports themed movies rely on the big game or event that normally caps off the film. This film didn’t focus so much on the boxing matches as it did the characters and their journey to those moments. Some of the best parts of the film didn’t even have anything to do with an actual boxing match. One of my favorite parts actually dealt with the female cast. Alice, Charlene and Mickey’s horde of sisters gave me a hearty chuckle and made me thankful that my family is by no means dysfunctional like that. Actually, this family wasn’t dysfunctional, they were no holds barred toxic. I remember sitting there in disbelief wondering just how close to the mark the film got to the actual family dynamic. If it was right on, then I’m amazed any of them made it out alive.
I mentioned before about the documentary style camera work that was used. This style wasn’t prevalent through out the entire movie. Parts were shot as a documentary that was being filmed, and other parts were standard. The boxing matches were made to look like a match you would actually see on TV back in that time period of the early 90’s. Shots of the fighters in the ring, in their corners while cutting back to shots of the family in the seats with the standard commentary from the sports broadcasters. This gave the fight scenes a sense of realism as if you were actually watching a fight.
The Fighter may be deemed a sports film, but really it covers more ground and deserves more that being pigeonholed as a one genre film. It crosses the borders to drama, with a portion leaning in the dark comedy area peppered with some suspense but not in the traditional sense. The beauty of the film comes from the realism that carries it. This is not a beautiful film, with beautiful sets and glamorous people. It’s set in a blue collar town where people are just trying to get by and every character is shown warts and all. And that my friends, is realism in all of it’s tainted glory.
This is a real gem of a film and one that I can’t recommend enough. The Fighter open in the UK on February 2nd.