Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Dendrie Taylor, Jenna Lamia
RunTime: 115 mins
Released By: GV
Rating: M18 (Coarse Language and Drug Use)
Official Website: http://www.thefightermovie.com/
Opening Day: 6 January 2011
Synopsis: "The Fighter" is a drama about boxing champ "Irish" Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky, a boxer-turned-trainer who rebounded after nearly being destroyed by drugs and crime.
“Irish” Micky Ward was the born-and-bred boxer from the working-class Massachusetts city of Lowell who fought his way to an unlikely world championship in the year 2000. Mark Wahlberg’s passion project “The Fighter” traces the rise of Micky from no more than a “stepping stone” (i.e. someone you fight with just to rise up the ranks) to his sweet victory as junior welterweight world champion. As far as boxing dramas go, this tale of an underdog who battles the odds to accomplish a shot at the big time may seem familiar, but David O’Russell’s film proves that there is still plenty of punch in the genre.
Russell is acutely aware that the best boxing dramas don’t keep their combats confined in the ring; rather, that ringside victory is but only a metaphor of the boxer’s triumph over adversity in his/her own life, and the genuine payoff for an audience emotionally vested in the character’s personal struggles. So in addition to being a rousing boxing drama, this is also a psychologically complex family drama, a sweet and poignant love story, and most of all, a complicated tale of two brothers. Russell’s greatest accomplishment? Weaving together all these disparate elements together into a knockout of a film.
When we first meet Micky, he has just lost three fights in a row, and though his older half-brother and trainer Dicky Ecklund- whose moment of glory was once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard- assures him that his time to shine is coming, a mismatched bout with a fighter 20 pounds heavier than him knocks out his fight. Luckily for him, a sexy and spunky bargirl, Charlene (Amy Adams), sashays into his life and helps him find the courage to accomplish his dream and remove the familial obstacles standing in his way.
Russell’s film thrives on these complex and thorny family dynamics- Micky’s family see him as their last bastion of hope to earn some boxing cash, in particular his chain-smoking gin-drinking mom and manager Alice (Melissa Leo), whose distrust of outsiders including Charlene is as ferocious as her denial of her jewel-in-the-eye Dicky’s crack addiction. Adding to the dysfunctional working-class family are seven loud and virulent sisters all stoically inclined towards Alice’s opinions, amidst their cackle not one voice of reason. The verbal showdown between Charlene and Micky’s exploitative female family for Micky’s future is one of the beautifully staged sequences in the film, and Micky’s difficult decision to free himself from their suffocating choke around his life is one of the many poignant moments here.
But the heart of the story is still the fraternal relationship between Dicky and Micky, one the star of the family basking in his past glory and the other the wannabe-boxer living in his brother’s shadow. Their subsequent emotional tug-of-war as Micky is forced to choose to do what’s right by himself is heartrending in its brutal honesty, culminating in Micky’s avowal to abandon Dicky as his trainer. Russell spends the first half emphasising the close bond between the two brothers, such that their separation and eventual reunion are easily the most affecting elements of the film.
Against these troubled sentiments portrayed with a keenly felt rawness, Micky’s relationship with the smart and tough Charlene who fights fearlessly against his family for his interests is a perfect counterbalance, and thanks to a terrific performance by Amy Adams, ends up tender and moving. Kudos to Adams for going beyond her usual perky type (e.g. “Enchanted” or “Julie and Julia”) to play Micky’s feisty other half with a will of steel- her unaffected performance will win you over right from the start.
That Adams’ stellar achievement in her supporting role may be so conveniently overlooked is testament to the quality of the acting on display in this film, which can be summed up in one word- phenomenal. In particular, you’ll be astounded by perhaps Christian Bale’s best performance to date, an exceptional accomplishment from one of the greatest character actors of our time. Bale dropped thirty pounds to play the skinny, fidgety older brother complete with receding hairline, bald spot and crack-addict teeth. It’s easy to cast Dicky as the bad guy in the story, but Bale imbues him with such warmth and sensitivity that you can’t help but feel immensely for his character. Bale keeps up a nervous energy about Dicky in every frame, and it is simply mesmerising to watch.
On the other hand, Wahlberg has the less showy role as Micky, and though Dicky pretty much steals the first half of the movie, Russell makes it plainly clear by the second half that we- like Dicky’s family- have very much been distracted by his antics. Micky is no less than the very core of the movie- it is his fighting spirit that eventually reunites the family. So while Wahlberg’s performance may be low-key, it is still outstanding and counts among one of his best ever. Wahlberg’s dedication to his craft is even more admirable considering how the actor started preparing for this role five years ago, building a boxing ring in his backyard, hiring two trainers on his own dime, and training hours each day to hone his skills. That preparation has certainly paid off- Wahlberg’s athletism is clearly evident onscreen, especially in d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema's long shots around the boxing ring.
Beyond preparing for the role, Wahlberg’s contribution to this film goes even further- when Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and subsequently Darren Aronofsky dropped out, it was Wahlberg who shaped the project from a studio film to a US$25m indie and got director David O’Russell on board. His efforts have paid off tremendously- Russell has created one of the best boxing dramas to date, a film that belongs in the league of “Raging Bull” and “Rocky”. So much more than an underdog tale, this is a complex study of familial ties, the ones that strengthen and the ones that strangle. And thanks to astounding turns by Wahlberg, Bale and Adams, this “Fighter” is simply one of the best films of the year.
(Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale give two of the best performances you’ll see this year- and thanks to them, this boxing drama is deeply poignant and stirring)
Review by Gabriel Chong