The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)

A fighter has a title shot, in a surprisingly heartwarming film about the importance of family, no matter how messed up it is

Director: David O Russell

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Eklund-Ward), Jack McGee (George Ward), Frank Renzulli (Sal Lanano), Mickey O’Keefe (Himself)

Everyone loves Rocky. We all want to that local-hero-turned-good, the guy who went the distance. Lowell, Massachusetts had that in Dicky Eklund. Eklund, a minor pro-boxer, once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 (he argues he knocked him down, although many are convinced Leonard slipped). “The Pride of Lowell” then became… a crack addict, tumbling from disaster to let-down, helping and hindering the career of his brother, fellow boxer Micky Ward.

The story of the two brothers – leading up to Ward’s eventual title shot in 1997 – comes to the screen in Russell’s affectionate, if traditional, boxing drama, long a passion project of Mark Wahlberg who plays Micky. Wahlberg kept himself in boxer-condition for years as he dreamed of making the film, recruiting director and cast and producing the film. The fine, sensitive film we’ve ended up with is a tribute to his commitment and producing skills, while the fact that Wahlberg casts himself in the least dynamic part is a nice sign of his generosity.

Because it’s only really on the surface a Micky Ward film. Sure, the film follows the vital events in his life. It opens with him bashed up in a mis-match, filling his role as a “stepping stone” fighter, someone the future champs flex their muscles against. We follow his struggles to escape from under the thumb of his large brash family – above all his bombastic, domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo). He forms a relationship with ambitious-but-caring Charlene (Amy Adams), moves up the ranking, lands that title shot, fights the big bout. But it never quite feels like Micky is the star.

Because, really, this feels like it’s about Dicky Eklund working out the first act of his life is over, and trying to find if he has what it takes to start a second, more humble, one. The film opens with Dicky followed by an HBO crew for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Dicky’s convinced himself it’s to chart his boxing come-back. It’s actually about the horrific impact of crack addiction. Dicky is a strung-out, unreliable junkie, living on past glories but screwing up everything he touches, being enabled by the fawning worship of his mother and sisters, who still worship him as the families main event (and continue to do so, even as Micky rises to title shot). The film’s heart is Eklund sinking to rock bottom and realising he has forced the compliant Micky into playing a subservient role in his own life.

Perhaps it feels like a film more focused on the remoulding of this charming but selfish figure because of the compelling performance of Christian Bale. Starving himself down to match Eklund’s wizened, strung-out physique (he’s still got the boxer moves, but his body has wasted away) is a day’s work for a transformative actor like Bale. But this isn’t just a physical performance, but a deep immersion into the personality of a person who almost doesn’t realise until it is too late how fundamentally flawed he is. Bale’s a ball of fizzling energy and electric wit coated in a lethargic drug-induced incoherence. His energy is frantic but uncontrolled, wild and mis-focused. It’s a superb, heartfelt performance of loveable but dangerous uselessness that nabbed Bale an Oscar.

But what makes The Fighter a surprisingly warm film is that, for all his many flaws, selfishness and self-obsession, Dicky genuinely cares for his brother. He wants the best for him, he believes in and loves him. Much of the power of Bale’s performance comes from the fact he never forgets this, even when Dicky is at his worst. In fact, Russell’s whole film works because that warmth and love everyone feels for Micky is never forgotten and never weaponised by Russell into helping us make moral judgements about the characters. Nor does it forget that Micky may sometimes hate his family, but he never stops loving and needing them.

A weaker film would have stressed the trailer-trash greed of Melissa Leo’s Alice. Leo (who also scored an Oscar and famously dropped the f-bomb on live TV, condemning the ceremony to a permanent time delayed broadcast ever since) is in many ways playing an awful character: controlling, nakedly favouring Eklund over his brother, quick to judge, rude and aggressive. She’s never truly likeable – but Russell’s film understands everything she does is motivated by love. She genuinely wants the best for Micky, even while she pushes him into bad fights and never listens to him. She tries to protect him, and expresses this in destructive selfishness.

In many ways she’s just like Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who recognises early that Micky’s family (who have turned him into a timid hen-pecked type) can’t be trusted to run his whole career, but who also subtly pushes herself into Alice’s place as the leading decision-making influence in his life. Very well played by Amy Adams (who lost the Oscar to Leo), Charlene is smart, sexy, loving but just as determined that it’s her way or the highway.

What Micky needs to do, the film carefully (if rather safely) outlines, is take the best qualities of all his influences. It’s Eklund’s “job” to realise Micky needs everyone he loves singing from the same hymn-sheet. It needs compromise and putting other people first. It makes for a nice little paean to the importance of family relationships, founded on forgiveness and admitting when you are wrong. Micky forgives his mother and brother for their selfishness: they, in turn, acknowledge their mistakes. Eklund is crucial here: Bale is again superb as a man who suddenly realises pride has nearly ruined his life and embraces the junior role in the relationship with his brother.

Sure, none of this reinvents this wheel, but it still makes for engaging and rather sweet drama. Russell mixes it with some neat stylistic flourishes that don’t overwhelm the film. It’s shot with an edgy, handheld immediacy reflecting its street roots. The fights are shot with old TV cameras, so that invented footage can fuse with 90s HBO coverage. Russell of course gets great performances from his actors, as he always does.

The Fighter is in many ways predictable. But it wears its heart very much on its sleeve, and Wahlberg deserves credit for assembling it and for giving a quiet, generous performance at the centre of it. And the film’s commitment to the idea that, no matter the problems in our families, we can all find the courage to admit our mistakes and pull in the same direction remains heartwarming.

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