Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie Review: "The Fighter"

Full disclosure: When I first saw the trailer for "The Fighter," I groaned and rolled my eyes.

I can hardly be blamed. The boxing genre is not necessarily fresh in Hollywood, pummeled into cliche by one too many Rocky sequels. Since his last critical and commercial hit with "Three Kings" in 1999, director David O. Russell has become mostly known for his tirades on the set of "I Heart Huckabees." Star Mark Wahlberg is fairly inconsistent, following up Oscar-nominated performances in films like "The Departed" with laughable work in drek like "The Happening."

"The Fighter," then, was an underdog in my opinion. So perhaps it's fitting that the film, much like the character at its center, delivers a shocking knockout punch that will leave audiences elated.

The film is the true story of boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg), who tries to fit in a few fights when he's not paving the roads in his hometown of Lowell, Mass. He's managed by his brash mother (Melissa Leo) and loopy older brother Dicky (Christian Bale), the former "Pride of Lowell," whose claim to fame was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard in a professional fight. Followed by an HBO documentary crew, Dicky hopes Micky's success will be the start of his own comeback.

Dicky is Micky's hero, the reason why he's content to take fights that pay peanuts and get jerked around by ESPN. Dicky's the reason why Micky won't pursue offers to train fulltime in Las Vegas. Between Dicky and his mom, Micky is compelled to stay in Lowell, keep tight with his family and pursue a boxing career that looks like it will never get him much farther down the roads he paves each day.

But Micky is also well too aware that Dicky could be his undoing. Charismatic and fun-loving, Dicky's a livewire who is rapidly ruining his life with a crack addiction. Pretty much everyone in town knows this except for Alice, who chooses to believe her boy is doing just fine.

After a bungled fight scars his pride and a pretty girl (Amy Adams) captures his attention, Micky begins to take his career into his own hands. But his attempts at moving forward are hampered by Alice, who seems to see management as her maternal duty, and Dicky, whose personal woes begin to capture the attention of Lowell and drag down Micky's reputation.

"The Fighter" may follow the outline of a typical underdog story, but its success is in the way it fills up the space between the predictable beats. Russell captures the crude, brash tone of Lowell, a small town where everyone knows everyone else and is probably related to them. There's a lot of humor and drama to be found in the gang of Alice's sisters that seem to constantly be at her home. Early in the film, as the HBO crew follows Dicky and Micky around Lowell, we get a sense of just how much Dicky's previous success captured the attention of the town and, when the crew's true intentions are later revealed, we realize just how far Dicky's travails have made him a joke in the town that used to revere him.

Wahlberg is effective as Ward, and the tough guy sensitivity that he brings to the role serves him well as a self-doubting boxer. While some may argue that Micky has no personality of his own, the truth is that Wahlberg is playing a man whose personality has been forged by who his family tells him he is. Micky is informed at one point that he is a "stepping stone" - a boxer who basically helps other fighters advance in their careers. But he's been used as a stepping stone for Dicky, to fuel a comeback that everyone knows will never happen.

Micky is shaped by the women in his life. Leo is wonderfully trashy as Alice, who favors Dicky over Micky, and seems to see boxing as a chance for her boys to bond and for Dicky to get the respect she feels he deserves. It's far from a one-note role; there's a heartbreaking scene between Dicky and Alice where Leo reveals that her character knows more about her son's problems than she's letting on, but she's also a mother who sees the promise and potential in her boy.

Adams has made a name for herself as a perky, optimistic young actress and surprises here by how well she plays a tough-talking Boston girl. Her Charlene is the force Micky needs to show him how his family has held him back and challenges him to fight (literally) for what he deserves. It's a new direction for Adams, who shows just as much skill talking trash as she did for being a princess in "Enchanted."

But "The Fighter" belongs to Bale, who entirely loses himself in his portrayal of Dicky. Wiry thin, eyes bugging and unable to stop moving, Dicky is a mess. He has one success story in his life - and there are hints that even that may not have been as he remembers. He sees his brother's career as his shot at redemption, but he can't bring himself to stop his bad habits, confident that what we see as charisma and charm will get him out of trouble. There's a sobering moment when Dicky finally sees the depth of his problems, and it's to Bale's and Russell's credit that the moment comes honestly, not through manipulation. Bale has never been this loose or unpredictable before, and it's the best role of his career.

It's tempting to say that Dicky may have made the more interesting subject, but by putting him as a supporting character, the film maintains a suspense it would not have had were it a typical addiction story. Those tales can end only one of two ways - redemption or tragedy. With Dicky off to the side, Russell creates a great deal of dramatic tension as we wonder what Dicky's impact will be on Micky's career: Will he reform? Will he screw up? Will he die? Go to jail?

"The Fighter" may follow the broad path of a traditional boxing story - complete with training montage - but it zigs and zags on its way to the Big Fight and, like the original "Rocky," succeeds not because of the action in the ring but because of the drama outside it.

Russell tones down his quirks and visual tics, and delivers a realistic, gritty movie - much the same move that Darren Aronofsky made in moving from "The Fountain" to "The Wrestler" (incidentally, Aronofsky is an executive producer of this film). The boxing in the movie is fine, but the personal stories dominating the film are far more involving, something that is refreshingly rare in this genre.

"The Fighter" is that rare film that tells a traditional, crowd-pleasing story, but does it with enough craft and passion to elevate it beyond formula. Fueled by powerful performances and a gripping true-life story, it is one of 2010's best films.

Originally published in the December 19 version of the Advisor and Source Newspapers.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.