Of all the sports, the most brutal breeds the best writing and the best movies. A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, each has turned boxing's cruel dynamic into eloquent prose.
On the screen, from Somebody Up There Likes Me through Requiem for a Heavyweight to Fat City, the essential melodrama of the ring – the loss of innocence, the scars of experience – make for reliable dramatic fodder. And, of course, in the hands of Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull became a great director's greatest film.
Although also based on a true story, The Fighter isn't in that class. The picture makes too many concessions to the Hollywood judges, pulls too many punches. But at least it has real punches to pull, because there's honest sweat here too, and a full complement of those archetypes that lie at the popular heart of the genre.
After all, every tale of a champion boxer is a parable of the underclass, where the hero's blue-collar toughness and street smarts earn him a graduate degree in the school of hard knocks.
So armed, he may rise only to fall, but it's the ascent that counts – the barriers of class and the gates of fame broken down, however temporarily, at the business end of his fists.
This is no different. When we first meet Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward, in their gritty home town of Lowell, Mass., the half brothers are at very different rounds in their pro careers. Once a flashy boxer, Dicky (Christian Bale) had his moment of glory knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, but, since then, he's spent years duking it out with crack cocaine.
Still active in the ring, the younger one (Mark Wahlberg) couldn't be more different. In contrast to his motor-mouth sibling, Micky is quiet, disciplined, withdrawn, with zero flash but a helluva body punch. Yes, he's less a boxer than a fighter.
Unfortunately, he's also a fighter bullied by a wayward family, badly trained by his scatterbrained bro and mismanaged by his bottle-blonde, spandex-wearing, gin-swilling mother (Melissa Leo).
Sure, they mean well, but in their hands Micky has become merely an opponent, a "stepping stone" for up-and-comers. Early on, during a mismatch in Vegas, he gets brutally stepped on by a guy 20 pounds heavier, returning home with a pulpy face and a fervent vow: "I don't want to do this no more."
Happily, into his corner sashays the sexy Charlene, soon to become the love of his life and, thanks to Amy Adams's finely tuned work, the woman who steals the picture. She's a bartender with brains and moxie and a quick-witted knack for shooting from the lip, backed up with a mean left hook of her own – in short, a beguiling variation on the lunch-pail stereotype. Charlene convinces Micky to take on new management, whereupon the film settles into its twin-battles – his pugilistic struggle to climb up the rankings, and the domestic battle with his crazy family.
The first is terrific. Wahlberg's performance is appealingly low-key outside the ring, and credibly athletic inside, where director David O. Russell shoots the fight sequences without Scorsese's poetic flourishes but with something almost as good: a clear-eyed, no-nonsense, documentary panache. The brutal spectacle is perfectly caught, as is the attendant tackiness – like the Vegas sexpot in high heels who, too eager to showcase herself holding up that card with the round number, gets stuck wiggling through the ropes.
But the second battle, the domestic stuff, flirts with farce. That shrill mom, along with her brood of seven overblown and overgrown daughters (they could be the seven anti-dwarfs), come off like outtakes from The Jerry Springer Show, just white-trash clichés. Similarly mannered is Bale's look-at-me take on Dicky. He's way too into the role; it's so upper-case ACTING.
As for the big-fight finish, an ostensible title bout in distant London, boxing fans will know that the climax is fixed. That match wasn't where Micky Ward earned his sterling reputation. But movie fans won't care, and should be roused. Score it, then, a split-decision victory, since The Fighter does what any cinematic fighter must – shed his blood to win our hearts.
- Directed by David O. Russell
- Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
- Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
- Classification: 14A