I suppose it is inevitable that The Fighter will be compared to Rocky. Only Rocky Balboa was a fictional character, and Irish Micky Ward was real. But from my perspective, this was no Rocky wanna-be. In truth, this wasn’t a Raging Bull wanna-be either. Those films were 180 degrees apart, more on that later.
The Fighter has elements of both, but Director David O. Russell has taken steps that will place this film in neither of those camps. Mark Wahlberg portrays Micky Ward, and going in, I expected him to carry the film. But this is not the case.
In fact, despite Walhberg’s lead billing, he underplays his role, and clearly gives his co-stars an opportunity to shine, and for sure, they do, as the best performances are theirs. While the film will not win a Best Picture Oscar, we just might see a Big O awarded to one or two of the cast.
First, Christian Bale is stunning, giving a virtuoso performance as Dicky Eklund, who is Micky’s half brother. Eklund himself was a boxer, and he reached the heights, if not the glory, by going the distance,toe to toe with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978. But that fight was Dicky’s pinnacle, and years later, he has become a criminal and a crack-head.
He has difficulty separating the present from the past, the reality of the Leonard fight from the legend, as well as knowing that a comeback is not in the cards for him. This film, gives Bale a role that is a searing look at man who has slid from the top of the world (almost) to near oblivion. Bale is riveting and you can’t take your eyes off him. He is a joker, a goofball, and a superb trainer for his brother Micky; only he can’t get past crack.
Melissa Leo, who I remember from tv’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, here plays Alice who is Mother to both Dicky and Micky, as well as seven now adult daughters, who have been called harpies and furies, as well as a discordant Sisterly Greek Chorus. Alice manages Micky’s fight career. Her strength is her her loyalty to her sons, but this is also the reason why the family is so dysfunctional.
Her oldest son is Dicky, and together they guide Micky’s career, but not always in his best interest. Leo doesn’t give us a multi-leveled performance as Alice. As the role is written she is clearly the villain of the film. We watch her, and we become unsettled, then we hate her.
Once Dicky is sent off to prison (again), and Micky takes up with the bar- tender Charlene, we see Alice bare her fangs, and rouse up the seven sisters in a unified front against Charlene. But they’re not fighting to protect Micky. Instead they’re fighting to keep their piece of him. Alice, having lost her oldest son to crime and drugs, cannot lose her youngest son to another woman. You won’t like Alice the least bit, but you will simply love Melissa Leo as Alice.
Amy Adams stars as Charlene. She is something of a female Dicky herself. Only she didn’t slide into crime and drugs. She went to the University of Rhode Island, on a full ride athletic scholarship. Only she partied too much, and never graduated. Now she tends bar in Lowell, and has to put up with a nightly assortment of drunks and other losers who talk about her sugar ass right in front of her.
She becomes Micky’s love interest, but the road to love for them is painfully bumpy. Adams turns in a stellar performance as the feisty, tough as nails, won’t take shit from anyone Charlene. It is hate at first sight between Charlene and Alice and the seven sisters. But Charlene stands up to them, giving as good as she gets despite being outnumbered. She also gets Micky going when he wants to pack it in, and when she needs to, she makes her peace with Dicky.
Russell takes the ‘generic boxing underdog’ story and gives it some freshness by weaving the boxing aspect and the family drama into a cohesive whole. That Micky would reach the heights is no surprise, but Russell doesn’t give us a heroic musical anthem to hum over and over as we exit the theater.
Nor does he go into much details about the drug abuse by Dicky, or the supposed criminal connections about the fight promoters. The fights themselves are tiered building in length as well as intensity as the film progresses.
In another interesting turn, Russell changes his style to a degree at least twice within the film which thereby breaks into thirds. In the first third, the film is very dense. Characters talk at the same time, overlaying one another, making it harder on the viewers. The camera work progressively slows down as do the speeches by the actors in the middle segment. By the third segment, we have many more single shots with one actor taking up most of the frame.
The script makes us care about Micky, but it is not so much about rooting for him. Rather it seems like we are rooting against his family who despite their protestations, have often placed their own ‘success’ ahead of Micky’s.
While Rocky was a populist fable that millions cheered for, Raging Bull was a film that dealt an endless series of body blows to both Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta as well as we the audience. That film was a battering for us, yet a showcase for the sheer technical virtuosity and artistry of Martin Scorcese, the director. The Fighter will not have you leave the theater cheering nor will you feel beaten up emotionally by what you just watched, but certainly, it is film you will appreciate and enjoy.