It doesn’t take long before you get into the mesmerizing ebb and flow of “The Fighter,” a blue collar tour-de-force featuring incredibly rhythmic performances, a riveting narrative, and taut direction. Destined for many Top Ten lists (mine, too), it follows the based-on-a-true-story of the punch-ups and knock-downs of two half-brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts, who coulda-woulda been contenders to boxing’s upper rings of glory.
Down-to-earth and somewhat bashful “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his goofy, wide-eyed, crack-addicted older sibling/trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) are harped over by their hard-nosed, bleached blonde mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo). A flock of the boys’ sisters and half-sisters chirp in from the family roost when the overly protective mother hen orders her shrill harpies into action. They especially lay their claws into any foreign entity they perceive as parasitic to the family’s interests, and that bacteria would be Micky’s college-educated girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), whose sweet, level-headed demeanor tries to steer her man away from the apparent management errors that are preventing his rise in the ranks as a professional boxer. Whether getting brutally beat in a fight against an opponent 20 lbs. heavier, or being persuaded by his brother and mom that he can easily win such an impossible match-up, the ever obedient Micky gets embarrassingly mauled from all sides—physically and emotionally. Returning from a disastrous bout in Atlantic City, Micky wallows silently in his lost pride, nursing a bloodied face and starring out the limousine window, while brother, mom, and her current husband George (Jack McGee), ever oblivious to their charge, party and whoop it up as if they had just won the Boston marathon. This is not the kind of chain-smoking, Budweiser-guzzling family you want looking out for you, often ignoring its own blemishes. It makes the Inquisition look like a walk in the park.
“The Fighter” is presented, in part, via interviews for a 1993 HBO documentary purportedly on Dicky’s unlikely comeback after his welterweight loss to world champion Sugar Ray Leonard (who makes a brief appearance) 14 years earlier, as well as very authentic-looking faux home movies and ESPN-style video-shot footage (the digital grain works and makes you forget that widescreen tv wasn’t around back then). We see Micky as the even keel of the ship and the often crazed, wildly hairdoed Dicky as the messed-up rudder, often steering his brother’s career off course. Christian Bale, as the film’s excessively off-kilter character, is also its most mesmerizing. He swims convincingly through a drug-induced haze, constantly reliving a brief moment of glory when he knocked down of Leonard (or did he trip?), even if losing the fight’s decision after going the distance. Bale’s ability to absorb such roles as Dicky or Trevor Reznik (in 2004’s “The Machinist’) is assisted by his proficiency at dropping his weight down to rail-thin proportions. Barely at the back of the class, Dicky’s several hot-headed, pathetic exploits are captured with perfect pitch and occasional humor by Bale. And he can play a really good Batman, too. The brilliant Melissa Leo, who was so impressionable in “Conviction” earlier this year, does a variation on the gruff character from that film, again offering up a selfless performance of a flawed matriarch with acid flowing through her veins. While Wahlberg is the film’s star and a producer, his gracious restraint in filling Ward’s reserved, stay-in-the background character forces our attention to Bale and Leo’s over-the-top flamboyance in their roles. Adams takes on perhaps her most nuanced persona to date with a serious dramatic interpretation that extends her career beyond the memorable, fun material she so thoroughly entertained us with in “Enchanted.”
David O. Russell, who tends to pick up the feature director’s reins every 5 years or so (with his last two, 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees” and 1999’s “Three Kings,” both with Wahlberg, who was the driving force in getting “The Fighter” made). Russell, who also attended a high school that neighbored my home town (in case you were wondering), makes it as much a compelling, sometimes bloody, sports film as it is an emotional tale about fractured family and raw relationships. It’s believable on all levels, especially considering it was just a 33-day on-location shoot while years in preparation. He even manages to get a fine performance out of Micky’s other real-life trainer Mickey O’Keefe as himself, a Lowell cop who often clashed with Dicky on life and boxing strategy. Russell’s claim that the film “is about people who are really human, all too human, like every one of us,” is dead on. “They are in some ways heartbreaking, in some ways hilarious, yet always very, very real.” You have to admire someone who can convincingly balance all of the film’s blistering, screwed up moments with the powerful, joyous and very often, potty-mouthed ones. Danish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In”) helps to captured the film’s edginess with the constant use of close-in handheld and Steadicam camerawork.
“The Fighter” is an inspirational knockout. And after Dicky’s drug-induced wise cracking and his maladaptive family’s pot-and-pan tossing tempers have cooled, the tears will dry and the cheering begin.