by Richard von Busack
PRESTIGE-FILM season is the graveyard of the good, solid three-star movie. That makes it tougher for The Fighter, with its title so similar to the The Wrestler. David O. Russell’s account of pugilists Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund is more than worthwhile, though. It’s juicy, touchingly acted and rich with atmosphere.
The story takes place in the 1990s, in Kerouac’s town of Lowell, Mass. As always, serious location work reduces the need for a lot of explanatory dialogue. The Fighter begins with a parade of sorts: followed by cameras, the two go for a walk through the their town, shaking hands and high-fiving the passers-by. One disgruntled local tosses a cup of water at them from his second-story window, and the film slips into a groove of believability.
Road-crew laborer and striving boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) has been training all his life with his elder half-sibling, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). We see them together on a couch, talking to the camera in what seems to be a documentary about the two brothers’ comeback. Dicky’s great claim to fame was knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard (the smooth Leonard plays himself here), and he’s ready to remind any listener of that bout.
Ward is in a career lull as a “stepping-stone” fighter, used as a boxer for other boxers to leapfrog over. He’s divorced with a kid; his ex-wife, still hostile, has a restraining order against him. One evening, Micky meets a weary bartender, Charlene (the creamy-skinned Amy Adams, looking luscious with a few extra pounds on her). She is a University of Rhode Island dropout with some aspirations for a better life.
Charlene is tough enough to fight off Ward’s overprotective family: a gaggle of seven high-haired, sharp-nailed sisters. They look like they could take down a heavyweight or two themselves, and there always seems to be more of the sisters in every scene. The mom of this scary brood is the chain-smoking Alice (Melissa Leo in another fine, sandpapery performance); all put pressure on Micky to keep Dicky as his trainer. One little problem with the elder half-brother’s work: he’s a hopeless crack addict.
The Fighter has an excellent subject for a working-class film: the problem of someone rising, anchored by a close family—anchored in the sense of the word that means “something that drags you down.”
Wahlberg, born 34 miles away from Lowell and also a child of a family of nine, couldn’t have been better cast. Bale has to jump around a bit more; this is not his milieu or his accent, and his acting gets a bit more flamboyant. Not to say that Bale’s Dicky isn’t invigorating to watch in spots. But when people say a train wreck is fascinating, they usually mean they also like to that watch that part right before the train collides. Bale is a smoking, ruined locomotive from the get-go.
Russell handles Dicky’s turning point, his recovery, with an interestingly antique method: double-exposure-like images of his bout with Leonard flicker above his bed as he sweats out the crack cocaine. There are only so many ways to shoot a boxing movie, let alone a boxing scene. Russell avoids most of the Raging Bullisms by filming as straightforwardly as a documentary cameraman. Russell shows us the science of prizefighting, the dodging and dancing more than the slamming fists.
Inevitably, there is that visual necessity: the slo-mo, sweat-splashing punch to the jaw, a shot just derided in Jackass 3D as “The Rocky.” As usual in a boxer’s biopic, the height of the arm’s arc, the narrowness of the victories and even the size of the opponents are exaggerated. It’s already notorious on the Internet that Mike Mungin had fewer than 10 pounds on Ward, not 20 as it says here.
The pleasures of The Fighter come in the well-done performances and the well-filled-in backgrounds more than in the structure itself. If the facts are slightly fast and loose, so, blessedly, is Russell’s direction.