“The Fighter” is a story of comebacks, in life, love, family, and boxing. Directed by David O. Russell, this what he does best, creating a world full of real, flawed people in a tough situation, and everything that goes along with that. Moments of laughter and levity mix with cruelly painful realizations. Uplifting triumphs are juxtaposed with crushing defeats. At times it can be kind of a mess, where you’re not entirely sure what the real story is, but the strength of the acting carries you through the rough patches.
Mark Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, a real life boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts. A solid fighter with heart for days, Micky has become a stepping stone for younger fighters on their way up, though knows he is more than that. Micky’s older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), once fought, and knocked down, Sugar Ray Leonard, but that was 14 years ago. Dicky clings to his one shining moment in his past like a drowning man with a life vest, constantly jabbering about it even when no one will listen. An HBO camera crew follows him around, and he tells people they are detailing the story of his comeback, but in reality they are filming a documentary about crack addiction in America.
Dicky was once Micky’s hero, and is supposed to be training his younger brother, but shows up to the gym hours late, strung out from partying all night. At one point the family has track him down at a crack house when everyone is supposed to at the airport on the way to Micky’s next fight. Dicky is a fast-talking charmer who looks like a stressed out ostrich, and his entire family is on his hook. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), coddles him, and clings to the Sugar Ray fight as much her son, turning a blind eye to his obvious problems. There are like 50 sisters, all with giant hair, stretch pants, and crazy ass New England accents, who are basically mini versions of Alice. The sisters are the least real element of “The Fighter”. They’re cartoony and over the top in every way, which would normally be a strike against a film, but they are so damn funny that it is easy to forgive.
When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a college drop out and bartender, things finally begin to look up for him, and he reevaluates what is really important in his life. For years everything he did was for family. He’s been dragged along in Dicky’s shadow. Alice sets up bad fights for him, just so they can get paid. Dicky makes everything about himself, neglecting Micky’s training, and even slacking off at their day job on a road crew, repaving streets. At every turn Micky plays the dutiful son and the loyal brother, and this devotion blinds him to the crippling dysfunction surrounding him, until Charlene makes him see the harm they cause. She is the first person who ever wants Micky to do what is best for Micky, while his family was content to flush his life down the crapper. While the relationship between Micky and Charlene is well done, there is not quite enough of it to fully believe that he would go against a lifetime of “doing it for the family”. That shift happens to quickly, and the film takes for granted that Micky would automatically side with his new girlfriend against his own people.
End to end the cast of “The Fighter” does an incredible job, and the acting is the real strength of the movie. Bale definitely takes center stage when he’s on the screen. Much like Dicky, he makes himself the center of attention with a nonstop stream of manic chatter. Wahlberg turns in a quiet performance that sneaks really sneaks up on you. At first you think he’s just a mook punching bag, but the scene where the documentary about Dicky airs, and Micky calls his ex, pleading with her not to let their daughter watch her uncle smoke crack on television, is absolutely brutal. Adams, who usually comes off as the cutesy, perky young girl, steps up her game and shows some acting chops as the feisty Charlene, even beating down one of Micky’s sisters on the front porch. She wants Micky to get away from his family, but at the same time, she is in imminent danger of becoming just as controlling and manipulative as they are. Leo is perfect as the harried, delusional mother, full of persecution fantasies.
The focus of “The Fighter” is less on the fighting than the dysfunctional family drama that plays out. In fact, the boxing matches are the weakest element of the film, but for the most part, Russell and writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, keep you out of the ring, except for quick little hits, until later in the film. In their defense, it is hard to tell a sports story without the “big game” moment.
While “The Fighter” is definitely one of the best films of 2010, the acting alone is enough to secure it a spot in the upper echelons, and probably garner a nice collection of award nominations as well, but in the end the story lacks focus that prevents it from being truly great. Is it Micky’s story, Dicky’s story, or the family’s story? It is certainly more of a family drama than a triumphant sports movie, but in the end, it tries to be both. One minute the focus is on Micky’s fight career, the next it’s on Dicky smoking crack. Then you move on to the romance between Micky and Charlene, and after that there is familial tension to deal with. For the majority of the film, this collage effect works fine, but by the end you want there to be a point, you want all of these threads to come together, but they simply don’t quite get there. It’s difficult when dealing with real subjects, because life isn’t always so tidy, but this is a movie that tries to be too many different things, and as a result, isn’t really any of them.