Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"The Fighter" (2010)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson
Directed by David O. Russell
Rated R - Strong language, drug content, violence and sexuality
Running Time: 115 minutes

The Fighter (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)Mark Wahlberg stars as Lowell boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, trained by his brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) and managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo).  Micky's problem isn't that he's a bad fighter, but that he's constantly put in bad situations and makes the wrong moves because of his devotion to his family.  He's got a daughter that he rarely sees, and pins all his hopes on a relationship with her on winning a fight in Atlantic City that will give him his biggest pay day yet.  Unfortunately, Micky's opponent in this fight weighs 20 pounds more than he does, and Micky is thoroughly trounced.

Micky begins to date a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams) who convinces him that his problem is his mother and his brother.  Dicky is a drug user, spending most of his time in a crack house with a bunch of lowlifes and being followed around by an HBO documentary crew looking into his far-fallen hero.  Dicky seems to operate under some kind of delusion that the documentary is about his own comeback, but is instead a look at crack addicts.

After Dicky lands himself in jail for impersonating and then assaulting police officers, Micky is finally fed up with him enough to wash his hands of his brother.  Other people recognize Micky's potential as a boxer, including his father George Ward (Jack McGee), trainer and Lowell Police officer Mickey O'Keefe (as himself!).  Along with Charlene and a new manager, local businessman Sal LoNano (Frank Renzulli), Micky begins to make headway in a boxing career with the understanding that Micky's mother and brother will no longer be involved.  But as Micky begins to prepare for a title fight, his biggest chance yet, he begins to realize that even though they might have been bad influences on him in the past, he can't succeed without his family.

Plot-wise, "The Fighter" hits just about every note you expect these sort of underdog sports biopics to hit.  What makes "The Fighter" more than just a rote bit of going through the motions is the strength of the dialogue and the performances of the cast; both are first-rate.  Christian Bale is scary as Dicky Ecklund, throwing himself wholeheartedly into a role that required him to lose a ton of weight and dig deep into the psyche of a washed up drug addict.  Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's confident and overbearing mother is also a force to be reckoned with.  Amy Adams is also great as Charlene, a character who can be vulnerable and then bitchy on the turn of a dime.  The scene in which she first meets Alice is a hoot.

If there's a weak-point in the cast of "The Fighter," it's Wahlberg.  I like Mark Wahlberg, I do, but he's not an actor with a terrific range.  And he's definitely just too damned soft-spoken.  Half the time he's delivering his dialogue, he might as well be whispering it.  And this is not a complaint specifically about "The Fighter," but about Wahlberg's performances across the board.  He's this big, muscular, almost ape-ish looking dude... but when he talks, he's just a teddy bear.  Even when he's yelling, he seems quiet.  This works to his advantage in "The Fighter," since Micky is portrayed as a guy who just sort of lets other people roll over him his whole life, making his decisions for him.  But it also feels limited and small compared to the other huge personalities around him.

Still, this a minor complaint in an otherwise finely enjoyable film.  The accents can be a bit rough, even or a local like myself, but then a lot of the people in this film are locals too.  Despite a subplot involving crack, "The Fighter" doesn't go out of its way to paint Lowell as some kind of shithole that deserves to be wiped off the map, but rather a city which has its good parts and its bad.  Thankfully, it also doesn't totally bungle local geography like other major motion pictures often do (Hi, "Surrogates," I'm talking to you - Lynn isn't Dorchester).  So that's nice to see.

The boxing in the film is presented in a peculiar fashion; much like it was in "Rocky Balboa" a few years ago, the movie suddenly switches to video and looks very much like boxing does on television.  In fact, according to the film's Wikipedia page, those fights were recreated shot-for-shot at Lowell's Tsongas Arena using old cameras and even the same HBO film crew!  It's impressive, to say the least, and actually looks and sounds great in the movie.  

So with great performances and dialogue and a couple of thrilling and realistic boxing matches, "The Fighter" lifts itself up above its familiar story trappings.