Boxing is a brutal sport, but one that has translated into great movies. Raging Bull and Rocky (the original, not the sequels with "Clubber Lang" or "Ivan Drago" as the embarrassing one-note villains) are the most well-known, but there are many gems from the past based around pugilists like John Huston's Fat City (1972) or Robert Wise's Someboy Up There Likes Me (1956) with a young and hungry Paul Newman. The list of great boxing films is endless. Boxing, for a long stretch of the 20th century, was the second most popular sport in America behind baseball, and it achieved cultural adoration in film, print and the public's keen interest.
Boxing and cinema are a perfect match. Underdogs are king of the ring and America loves an underdog. All of the great boxing films have been built around the premise of the no-hope fighter training like a demon, never giving up the belief he can beat the man standing in the opposite corner and then shocking the boxing world by doing just that. Who wants to watch a movie about a favorite actually winning? For boxing movies, or all sports in general, underdogs always prevail in the end.
The Fighter is the latest film to take the sweet science to the silver screen and it delivers like a late-round TKO its subject Micky Ward was known for. Directed by David O. Russell, The Fighter is a gritty look into a family's connection to boxing, their dysfunctional battles with one another, drug addiction and the quest to get that elusive title shot. Sure, The Fighter is a boxing film, but it's the various relationships on display that give the film the heart to make us care about Ward and his motley crew of supporters in hardscrabble Lowell, Massachusetts.
Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in 1993 is a "stepping stone" fighter. Languishing fight after fight, Ward is used by promoters to make his opponent look good so they can move up the ladder. His career is slowly slipping away as he gets older and takes more beatings in the ring. He is trained by his crack-addict brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who is forever the clown and screw-up, still living in the brief glory that he fought Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, which is the perpetual topic of conversation when you're around Dicky. Never on time, always being arrested for assault or drug related charges, Dicky is as frustrating as he is encouraging for Ward.
Things start to change after Ward agrees to fight a man twenty pounds heavier for the paycheck and keep relatives happy that the money is coming in. He takes a vicious beating, ends up bloodied, embarrassed and re-thinking his future as a fighter who trains part-time in a run-down gym. Mom (Melissa Leo) and Dicky aren't doing a good job managing his career by letting him accept poor fight after poor fight. When Ward meets a feisty, opinionated local bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams) he begins to question what's best for himself even more. A prominent promoter offers Ward the chance to move to Las Vegas and train full-time, but the hold his family and Lowell have on him might be too much to let go.
Micky Ward is a throwback fighter thanks to three epic fights he had with Arturo Gatti in 2002-2003. His tenacity, heart and sheer will to mix-it-up in the ring is legendary in boxing circles and The Fighter tries its hardest to get that point across with a referential, solemn story about one man's inner fortitude. While The Fighter fails to successfully show the full-on barbarism in the ring that many of Ward's fights resulted in (gashes, mashed faces and trips to the hospital were a common aftereffect), its strength is in the way it navigates the tricky personal world of Ward and his handlers, who happen to be his relatives.
Wahlberg, in the lead role as Ward, is nearly forgotten at times by Russell as he focuses on the collection of original, larger than life characters gravitating around him. It's hard to blame Russell for that as casting director Sheila Jaffe has assembled possibly my favorite ensemble cast of the year. Bale gives a terrific, flashy performance as the emaciated, drug-addled Dicky. Just as good is the very talented Leo playing Ward's manager who rules the nest with equal parts obliviousness and Machiavellian mind games over her brood. Adams, who has been taking forgettable fluffy roles lately might surprise some people with her wit, strength and icy timing. The small roles look, sound and seem like people from Lowell with missing teeth, huge hair, unmistakable fashion choices and local accents.
The trouble with boxing films (all sports films actually) is to make the action appear as fast and real as what we are used to seeing. In that regard, The Fighter comes up a little bit short as much of the punches are either too fake, slow motion, half punches or overly telegraphed. Although, what does add to the fighting scenes is Russell's use of period graphics and equipment from the era to give the film the actual look of something viewed on HBO. The actual ringside commentary from Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Roy Jones, Jr. also gives the fight scenes an authenticity that counters the deficiencies of the actors trading punches.
This is kind of a comeback film from the talented, mercurial David O. Russell. He has become more infamous for his on-set dust-ups (physical with George Clooney; verbal with Lily Tomlin) than for his films. His early career had three winners right out of the gate with Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings before failing (albeit an interesting failure) with I Heart Huckabees in 2004. Russell has emerged from a six-year hiatus with another great film to put on his resume. There weren't any antics while filming either, but I get the feeling if he'd screwed with Bale (another notorious hothead) or Wahlberg, Russell would have come up on the short end of any fisticuffs.
On paper, The Fighter seems like another in a long line of recent uplifting sports movies (USM for short), but it's much more than that. Blessed with a stellar cast who give superb performances that are completely authentic, David O. Russell's The Fighter takes the cliched story of someone who hasn't got a chance and breathes realness into it. The end result is part fight film, part family drama, part anti-drug message, part statement on poverty and part love letter to a dying mill city all swirling together in a gritty mixture that is both captivating and moving.
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