Director: David O. Russell
When The Fighter started filming last year, many people were hoping for a few punches to be thrown behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. Would the notoriously finicky David O. Russell dare use the same language around the sometimes-volatile Christian Bale as he did with Lily Tomlin? Thankfully, all the punches are onscreen; The Fighter is an incredibly passionate piece of work, with great performances at its heart. This film needs passion, because it has a few sports movie stalwarts to overcome.
In almost every boxing movie, the hero is the underdog who needs a win. ‘Irish’ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has just lost his third fight in a row, and is regarded as a stepping stone for other fighters to get to the big leagues. His entourage comprises his screwed-up family. His father and seven sisters make their voices known, but the main influences on Micky are his mother and manager Alice (Melissa Leo) and his step-brother and trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Like so many movie families, Micky’s clan mean well, but they’re holding him back. Alice books fights that Micky is destined to lose, and Dicky is in and out of jail and crackhouses like a yo-yo. If our movie-going experience has taught us anything, it’s that the love of a good woman will help Micky find the right way. Wouldn’t you know it?! There’s a sassy barmaid (Amy Adams’ Charlene) with a thing for Micky. There’s not much point in saying much more about the plot since you’ve probably guessed it already (Will Micky finally get a shot at the welterweight championship? Take a wild guess!). Writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson can’t really play around with the boxing movie formula as it’s all based on the true story of Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. In a way this makes the story all the better; movie clichés are unbelievable, but they go down easy when they’re based on truth.
Russell directs with an unfussy hand, letting the drama flow naturally. Whilst that may mean his fight scenes may lack the artistic punch of Raging Bull, he gives them a TV-broadcast feel, like watching a big fight in the local pub with a beer and some friends. Bale’s emaciated frame and thinning hairline have got a lot of notice, but his performance goes beyond the cosmetic. Dicky should know better, but we’re willing to forgive. Bale almost steals the show, but Wahlberg invests Micky with too much heart to be overlooked. He and Bale bounce off each other nicely with a natural chemistry. However, the men don’t hog all the muscle, as Leo and Adams provide fierce yet fantastic support.
The Fighter’s familiarity is an asset to it. It’s not about a noble attempt at redemption or a bitter lesson about defeat. It’s about a regular joe trying to catch a break. Micky Ward may be a tough guy, but he’s a likeable and sympathetic guy, too. The Fighter is more than likeable; it’s a knockout.