The power that The Fighter displays is immense. As unconventional a conventional sports film as has been seen, David O. Russell has directed a film where the comedic impact is just as strong as the emotional. It is a triumph of real people on screen in a film culture that has become more and more frightened of stories that are well-rounded enough to not need a dimension tacked on.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a blue-collar worker with a dream of making it big as a boxer. In his corner is Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and has lived off the local fame and crack cocaine ever since. His mother (Melissa Leo) is the older version of a pageant mom who desperately wants success for her boy but struggles against her own selfishness. Everyone in his corner is working against him until he meets Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) who helps him get his career and his life on track.
The Fighter is an incredible surprise. It is completely conventional in the way that Ward’s boxing story plays out, but it’s utterly unconventional in the tools and rawness that it chooses to tell that story with. For one, the tone is all over the place, but still rigidly organized. Russell and the actors manage to swing from the emotional chandelier with bi-polar acumen, but it never feels jerky because even the happiest or silliest moments are encapsulated in the impoverished reality in which Ward and his family live.
That reality — one of a former textile town that has since gone on welfare — is presented in its empty streets, dilapidated row houses, and the drug culture in which Dicky relishes, but it’s not shown in some grimy patina. It’s shown in the realistic shoulder shrug that existed in a community used to it all. It is the great equalizer that paints every character’s action in a strangely sympathetic light even as it frustrates. For all the evil that Ward’s mother achieves (and for all the failure she causes), it’s a bit like watching a drowning woman push someone else under because it’s the only thing to do out there in the middle of the ocean.
The performances here are astounding. There’s no other actor that could handle the sweetness and stupidity of Ward who holds an innocence in his family dedication even if it means taking a beating and going nowhere. Amy Adams is at the height of her already considerable game and shows some teeth she’s never bared before — especially in a scene where the half-dozen female members of the Ward family all confront her on her own front porch.
Melissa Leo’s performance in The Fighter is one that rivals Joanne Woodward in The Three Face of Eve or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest and deserves recognition, but somehow in a sea of incredible performances, Christian Bale stands out.
It’s fascinating to see Bale play a role that is not unlike The Joker in The Dark Knight. Dicky is a force of nature that lands down into scenes and destroys everything it sees. He manages to do all of this with a smile on his face, and it always earns a kiss on the cheek from dear old mom. A crack-addict obsessed with his glory days, he’s surrounded by a community that won’t let him forget how amazing he is even as his teeth rot and fall out. It’s a complexity that would prove difficult for any performer, and Bale brings him to life and lets him loose on the story.
There are a few strange choices — particularly a winning montage set to the most obvious music choice possible. However, they are so few and far between that they’re easily overlooked. The achievement here is a film about family (you could replace boxing with anything), and the poison and sugar that comes with those people we’re bound to by blood.
Real people have been created here. Sure, the story is based on real-life events, but more than anything else, The Fighter succeeds in transmitting those people wholesale onto the screen, losing nothing from retelling their lives. That’s an amazing feat, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining and affecting film.
The Upside: Raw performances, a brilliant story, a new twist on the old forms.
The Downside: One cheesy moment that’s easily forgettable.
On the Side: Zero Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch songs were used in the film because it’s set in the 1980s.