The Fighter

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Runtime: 116 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong coarse language, violence and drug use

There is a long tradition of American films about boxing, as a sport, as an industry and the repercussions for individuals and family. Champion, The Set Up, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man. Quite a collection of films. The Fighter is up there with them.

Many audiences are not boxing fans and may wince at some of the fight scenes in this film. But, there is a lot more to the film than the gruelling poundings.

Non-American audiences may be surprised that this story is based on actual characters and their quite recent past. In fact, the two brothers at the centre of the film are seen in actual footage during the final credits. The trainer, Michael O’Keefe, seems to be played by a sympathetically talented actor, but it is O’Keefe playing himself. The setting is Lowell, Massachussets, and much of the film was made there, including the use of the actual gym of the story. Given that the film is grounded in fact, this is surprising, given the often unflattering portraits of the main characters.

The Fighter is the story of two brothers, Dick and Mickey Ward. The Fighter applies to both of them but the centre of the film is Mickey, the younger brother. The film opens with Dick speaking direct to camera as documentary makers are filming him for a documentary about his comeback. Comeback does not seem likely as Dick is a wild and bug-eyed interviewee, fidgety and jumpy and hyping what he says – he spends a lot of time in a crack house. The scene includes home movie footage of the two brothers. While Dick had his moment in the 1970s, it is now the 1990s and he is training Mickey who has ambitions but fears he is a loser. This sets the tone for a story of powerful family bonds (and domination, especially by their tough as nails mother, Alice) played out in fights at home and in the ring.

One of the reasons the opening is so attention-grabbing is that Christian Bale is playing Dick. Sometimes Bale seems stolid (even as Bruce Wayne), especially as Melvin Purvis in Public Enemies, and in Terminator: Salvation. He was at his serious best in 3:10 to Yuma. But, here… he is hyperkinetic, a performance that deserves many awards. Which means that Mark Wahlberg, as Mickey, has to play the straight role to his brother’s histrionics. This Wahlberg is always able to do and makes his dramatic mark in a less showy manner. Melissa Leo (so strong in Frozen River) brings the matriarch, Alice, to frighteningly domineering life. She has an entourage of six daughters who seem something like a Greek chorus in attendance, with moments like the Furies.

This means that, although the boxing is the setting for the drama, and we see inside the gyms, the bouts, the championships, the deals and the pressures, The Fighter is a film about family. (It was released at the same time in America as Animal Kingdom and both Jackie Weaver and Melissa Leo divided the Best Supporting Actress awards from a variety of critics associations – an out-there matriarch compared with a smilingly-sinister in-there matriarch, both wreaking emotional havoc on their sons.) And Amy Adams (who can do sweet as well as pouty – Doubt, Julie and Julia, Leap Year) is able to adapt to the tough environment as Mickey’s girlfriend – who knows how to stand up to Alice.

David O. Russell has not made so many films and they range from Three Kings to I Heart Huckabees. This is one he can be proud of.

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