The Fighter, a review

The Fighter is a drama based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward’s unlikely rise through the ranks to the WBU (World Boxing Union) light welterweight title.

Micky’s story would be a conventional sports film if not for the presence of his half-brother Dicky, a boxer-turned-trainer whose life was screwed up by crack addiction and the petty crimes that are often associated with that life.

In the film, Micky is played byMark Wahlberg, whose own story contains a rags-to-riches struggle that was detailed recently in a 60 Minutes documentary. Wahlberg has become a producer and he was the driving force behind the making of this film. On screen, his performance is flat. He was physically fit and his boxing scenes are convincing, but his performance never deviated from what we have come to expect from him.

In this film, the brother, played by Christian Bale, makes the story interesting and charges it emotionally. Bale bursts from the skin of his character, igniting every frame of the film with his energy (he reminded me, occasionally of his role as the young boy in Empire of the Sun). As in The Mechanic, he lost a lot of weight as he prepared to play the gaunt crack-addicted brother. He was 100 per cent convincing.

This character, Davy, exudes personality every time he enters a room or walks down a street. You know he is a drug-addled screw up and you know he is going to mess up his brother’s life over and over, but the brother loves him and is loyal to him so you want to see Davy rise above his problem.

Having known an addict, having seen him steal everything he touched for several years and having seen him disappoint everyone around him as he failed repeated trips to rehab, I can understand the family’s love for Davy and their inability to let him go.

One of Bale’s best scenes was shot on the front porch of the house where Charlene, Micky’s girlfriend (played by Amy Adams) lives. Clean and sober after eight months in prison, Dicky carries a ton of baggage to that porch. He has hurt people. He has conned neighbors. He has disappointed everyone but his mother and his half brother. The entire town of Lowell, Massachusetts remembers Dicky as a boxer (“The pride of Lowell”) but they also remember him being addicted to crack, so nobody is prepared to believe he has gotten past the addiction during his eight months in prison.

On the porch, Micky, knowing that he carries that baggage, wants to charm Charlene and patch things up for his brother. Charlene, however, is fueled by her complete distrust of Davy. She loves Micky and she has seen Dicky mess up Micky’s life over and over again. On the porch, she has just walked away from Micky because he insists on being loyal to Dicky.

On the porch, she is skeptical of every word to come from Dicky’s mouth, and Dicky pulls out all the stops in an effort to overcome his baggage and connect with her to make things right for his brother.

The immovable object meets the irresistable force. It is a fine scene.

Amy Adams is equally amazing in this film. As an actor, she is gutsy. Even when she started to command bigger paychecks, she continued to make independent films and bring to those indie films performances that made them better than they might have been. She never shies away from a challenge. In this role she plays a worldly bartender who flunked out of college despite a full scholarship in high jump. As an athelete, she can identify with Micky.

In the final analysis, it is Amy Adams who makes the chemistry work between Charlene and Micky. Wahlberg can be as wooden as Ben Affleck when it comes to romantic subtleties. Amy Adams in this role is like one of those good dancers on Dancing With The Stars who have to work with a lesser partner who might as well be a post or a tree stump. While Wahlberg is unmoving, Amy Adams’ performance reaches out and draws the scenes together.

The Fighter has dimension to it, and a lot of  the depth comes from the supporting cast.

The boxing-ring mother (much like a stage mother), is played with conviction by Melissa Leo. She runs a family home surrounded by seven adult daughters. Yes, seven, and all seem to either be living at home or visiting their mother a lot. The sisters are a hoot, sort of like a Greek chorus on a living room couch. They have barely a high school education to share among them. Highly emotional, the sisters unanimously hate Micky’s girlfriend and they are quick to circulate rumors about her. The sisters were an unusual force that added their own peculiar subtext to many of the scenes. I loved them because there was something fascinatingly hideous about them.

Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, and Cinderella Man are all fight films that have taken the viewer where The Fighter goes. No surprise there. Micky, as you expect, gets the crap beaten out of him. He struggles through the rank. He gets his shot at a title and he enters the ring against a better boxer to compete for a world championship. The story has been told a hundred times.

The sports genre always travels down a well-beaten path and always takes us to a happier place. Every sports film tells this oft-told tale. You know from the first frame where the story is going, but you enjoy the genre because getting there is what makes sports films enjoyable.

The fighter benefits from the fact that it is not just a sports film but a film about family and redemption. It is a feel good film with a lot of ugly stuff to overcome.

I came out of the theatre glad that I have see three very good films in a row — The King’s Speech, Black Swan and The Fighter. Although I put The Fighter along side most of the other boxing films, it could have been a lot better. If the Micky character had been more three dimensional, the film might have been a classic. The rest of the elements are there. It’s a true story with a lot of subtext, and that alone makes it better than Rocky could ever be. Unfortunately, Wahlberg is no DeNiro so it’s no Raging Bull, and the script isn’t up to Million Dollar Baby.

That said, The Fighter is worth seeing. You’ll like it for the performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo and the character actors whose faces you’ll recognize from dozens of other films and television performances. You will love it for the feel-good arc, the love and redemption that are built into this genre.

If you like boxing, you’ll love the action. The camera work in the ring scenes is first rate and convincing. On the big screen, you feel every punch.

However, if you are of that generation that hates boxing but likes cage fighting, there’s no hope for you, sorry …

JOHN SHINNICK

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