|Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Drama, Sport
Duration: 116 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
David O. Russell’s return to directing after a six year absence is a witty and soulful sporting drama that recounts the true life efforts of two working class boxers to overcome their circumstances and banish respective demons. If it sounds like a tired premise, fret not, because The Fighter is a one of a kind film that shifts seamlessly between touching personal drama, wilful farce, exhilarating sporting action, and hysterical comedy and all the while remaining true to the rich characterisations at its core. Mark Walhberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of a briefly famous Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in sensational form), whose past exploits against Sugar Ray Robinson have become the stuff of local legend and the defining moment in the now crack addicted and failed pugilist’s career. Now Micky’s trainer, he’s quick to point out that the two brothers were very different in the ring and, as the playfully elegant documentary-like opening sequence demonstrates, they are very different outside it too. Despite their differences, there’s a deep bond that Dicky instinctively exploits along with their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) as they mismanage Micky into one bad fight after another. That is until the younger brother’s new girlfriend (a typically strong Amy Adams) encourages him to stand up for himself.
There’s so much going on here that it’s a testament to all involved the the movie glides so cohesively forward from one differently toned scene to another. An air of sharp comedy hangs over the film through the various characters’ combustible interactions but because of its perceptive portrayal of ordinary people there is, at its core, an honesty reminiscent of the best and most insightful dramas. Furthermore, much like that most untouchable of TV shows, The Sopranos, the realness of the characters and their dialogue acts as a tangible basis that allows their extraordinary experiences to thrill all the more especially during the boxing sequences. Combined with the assured energy of Russell’s direction, the film takes on a real verve and electricity from the viscerally shot fights to the soft and graceful subjective interactions.
But while Russell gives this film its momentum, it’s the cast who gives it its substance. Being the very definition of an actor who can shine in the right role or bomb in the wrong one, Mark Walhberg is beaming here like never before. It’s not a soul scouring piece of acting like Bale’s but it’s a triumphantly weighted ‘roll with punches… until’ performance that parallels Micky’s outside and inside the ring personas in endearing manner. This is a protagonist who we care about. Bale does his not unusual piece of dramatic weight loss to play the “squirrelly” larger than life junkie but it’s his ability to expose the essence of the human being beneath in all manner of interesting and charming ways that grabs the attention here. He deservedly nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for the turn but it’s his young De Niro-like energy that impresses most. Leo also scooped the Best Supporting gong for her fiery portrayal of the shrewd yet loving matriarch. It’s her and her motley crew of battle axe daughters that allow Russell to generate a fair bit of farcical relief and while the antics of the Ward/Eklund women can sometimes feel a little forced, they are terrifically funny when they get going. The real Dicky Eklund felt it wasn’t an accurate reflection of his mother and sisters and one suspects Leo and Co. added many more claws for comic as well as dramatic effect. If so, job done!
It all builds up to a rousing finale that like the best sporting dramas seems to add more significantly to the tone of the film rather than the plot. It’s a wonderful moment of movie holism where the sum of the film’s parts come together to give us something we were never really promised while getting there but only too delighted to receive.