Principal Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, Jack McGee, Mickey O’Keefe, Frank Renzulli, Jenna Lamia, Bianca Hunter, Erica McDermott, Sugar Ray Leonard.
Synopsis: Up and coming boxer Mickey Ward is trying to build a career, managed by his mother and trained by his crack-addicted brother Dicky. When Micky meets Charlene in a bar, she persuades him to part ways with his family and try his luck on his own.
Not too often in my life have I been moved to tears by a
sports film. In fact, outside of Forrest standing over Jenny’s grave, Private Ryan standing over Tom Hanks grave, or that final, aching camera shot in Pay It Forward, I don’t think I’ve cried too much watching any film. Not that I’m saying The Fighter moved me as much as those films, but it did give me a lump in my throat and a tear in the eye – it’s got characters you care about, even if they are a little bit trashy and a little bit rough around the edges. I get it, I really do. The thing about film is that the audience will always connect with great characters, good or bad, and I certainly connected with the ones in this movie. A stellar cast of performances, terrific direction from one of my favourite filmmakers, and a ripping yarn about family, make The Fighter just a no-nonsense film that’s awesome from start to finish.
Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an up and coming boxer in Lowell, Massachusetts. He’s managed by his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and trained by his brother, former boxer and now drug-addict, Dicky (Christian Bale). After a relatively unsuccessful career, in which other boxers use him as a “stepping stone” – a fighter they defeat to work their way up in rankings – Micky’s had enough, and is looking for a way to rise up. With his brother spending more time at a crack house getting high, and his mother and promoter fixing him with unwinnable contests, when Micky meets barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams) she sees that by sticking with his family, he’s never going to get anywhere. After his brother is sent to prison for pimping his girlfriend out in order to pay Micky to train, Micky takes Charlene and meets a new manager – under the condition that Alice and Dicky aren’t around. However, when Micky wins his first fight thanks to the skills he picked up from Dicky, Micky must make the decision to reunite with his family to go all the way to become world champion.
Yeah, sporting films aren’t my cup ‘o tea either, truth be known. I usually find these kinds of films pretentious, good luck chuck charms with foregone conclusions – exception being Friday Night Lights, a terrific film which threw me for a loop completely! – and I am not a mad keen fan of Baseball, Gridiron (American football) or Boxing… many of the sports Hollywood’s used as idolizing mechanisms for a societal disintegration. The rise of the underdog is a generic theme in these films, with a down-and-out hero seeking some kind of redemption or chance to show their stuff, usually overcoming incredible odds to end up getting all they asked for. Done. To. Death. So we come to The Fighter, a film I’d seen win numerous awards but had very little interest in due to its central conceit as a boxing movie. I felt the same about Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a film I ended up detesting, so I held little hope I’d actually find something to connect with in The Fighter. I expected more of the same.
What I got, however, was a far different result than a simple Boxing Movie. I got a family drama, a romance and a love story about two brothers, two brothers who love each other through thick and thin, and they just happen to be boxers. The boxing, in as much as it’s a driving force of this film, is almost incidental in the actual story – the focus of the film is the journey Micky and Dicky Ward have as brothers and friends, with a smattering of boxing thrown in for good measure. The added weight of this being a story based on actual living people (the real Micky and Dicky show up in the end credits) isn’t obviously accentuated by the film, even though an opening title card states as much, and you kinda get the sense that the story of Micky and his wayward older brother was more important that whatever happens in the ring. David O Russell, whose film Three Kings remains a pivotal cinema experience for me back in 1999, shot this film in a retro, almost documentary style, with a fluid camera style and hand-held intensity that not only serves to keep the audience as unbalanced as the characters, but right into the brutal emotions of the characters as they fight, love and lose.
The cast, particularly the three central ones, are fantastic. This is an actors movie, and Wahlberg, Leo and Bale deliver on all counts. Wahlberg, an actor I normally don’t have a lot of patience with because he seems to whisper everything he says, looks the part and plays the part of the wannabe professional boxer, an acutely pained performance knowing he’s balancing his career potential with his family. Melissa Leo is a stand-out as the overbearing mother, she’s the eponymous Sporting Mother, who lives through her children’s’ success when her own life is so utterly shit; frankly, she’s a terrible woman for most of this film, but by the end I came to appreciate her. Christian Bale, who stepped straight out of The Dark Knight and into this, is astonishing – he literally inhabits the persona of somebody so frankly fucked up it’s beyond belief. Dicky is – at least as far as the audience is concerned at the beginning of this film – a loser: he’s high on drugs, displays callous disregard for anybody other than himself, and lives in his past glories almost constantly. Dicky Ward once fought – and defeated – Sugar Ray Leonard, no small feat, but his failure to capitalize on this success remains the main sticking point for his anger and frustration. Bale is mesmerizing, he’s funny and saddening in his portrayal, and without doubt completely deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. So to is Leo, for her role, deserving of the Oscar for best Supporting Actress. Amy Adams, as Charlene, is intense, but her character felt a little like padding to me, almost underwritten for some reason, and I didn’t connect with her easily at all. Obvious time compression within the narrative of the film also works against her character – one minute she’s floozing with Micky, the next she’s berating his mother for her disingenuous behaviour towards her son, and it’s a disharmony of character development that I found jarring. Watch for Micky’s actual trainer, Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself in this film – he’s a natural.
The film stands out from a technical perspective thanks to a legitimacy of using the actual HBO crew that filmed Micky’s World Championship fight against Shea Neary in London back in 2000, making use of the BETA style of videotape and lack of “film polish” most sporting movies have going for them. Russell shot the film in widescreen, and somehow keeps things incredibly intimate thanks to clever use of framing and mid-range and close-up shot selection. I really enjoyed the way this film was shot, as well as how the story was told using this method – as a technical exercise, The Fighter should be studied.
Sure, the story might feel a little contrived, and the ending nearly a foregone conclusion from the outset, but the journey is perhaps the most important thing in the whole film, and it’s a dynamic, you-couldn’t-make-this-up-if-you-tried true story of betrayal and love. Dynamic performances keep this from being another run-of-the-mill sporting genre flick, and give the characters a heart and soul that leaps off the screen. Tight direction, solid production values, and an equally solid musical score by Michael Brooke, make The Fighter a truly epic, terrific sporting film that avoids the usual clichés (for the most part) and gives us a breath of fresh air at the movies. Nacho Libre this ain’t. Get on board and get in the ring with The Fighter. You won’t regret it.