Sunday, January 23, 2011

Film Review: The Fighter (2010)

Shit, I think that Mark did something that Christian found fucking distracting.
The Fighter stars Mark Wahlberg as a man who is a supporting character in his own life story. As a welterweight boxer, "Irish" Micky Ward's modest achievements have always been overshadowed by those of his older half-brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) and his claim to fame of having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Even though Dickie's glory days are behind him and he has descended into crack addiction, he is still the biggest thing that the town of Lowell, Massachusetts has ever seen, and as he trains Micky in the hopes that he will one day become something more than a stepping stone for other fighters, Dickie believes that his own comeback is just around the corner.

David O. Russell's film is, at least on some level, about how family and community can just as easily be traps as support systems. Micky's family, which includes seven sisters and his domineering mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo) alongside Dickie, clearly have the best of intentions, yet they have no clue what is actually best for Micky. In the first fight of the film, Dickie and Alice persuade Micky to step into the ring with a fighter who has twenty pounds on him because the fighter they were meant to fight has come down with the flu. Micky agrees because he is a thoroughly decent guy who knows that if he doesn't fight, they won't get paid. Unsurprisingly, he gets beaten to a pulp, all because he thought that his family knew what was best for him. Russell shoots the fight using the grainy video and camera techniques of a real televised boxing match, which stops them appearing cinematic but makes the fight, and all the subsequent ones, feel more real and brutal.

Micky begins to assert himself more when he starts dating Charlene (Amy Adams), a local barmaid who sees great potential in Micky and wants him to pursue his career away from the pernicious influence of his family. As he starts to spend more time with Charlene, who his sisters and mother distrust because she's a "wild MTV girl", tension builds between the two camps, with Micky in the middle trying to figure out who he wants to have in his life.

Like many boxing films before it, The Fighter is essentially the story of a scrappy underdog who gets his shot at the big time thanks to his sheer determination and ability. It's a story structure that is pretty much foolproof since it distills the essence of what an audience wants to see in a sports movie to its most basic element; the little guy taking on the big guys and, if not winning, at least doing better than anyone expected them to. It's such a good blueprint that it's difficult for anyone following it to make a bad boxing movie. It's also difficult for anyone to make a truly exceptional boxing movie from it.

Russell and his writers overcome the conventionality of the film by finding interest in the margins of the story. Although Mark Wahlberg does a great job with a role that doesn't require him to be much more than a really nice guy who wants to do the best he can for himself and for those he loves (which, in itself, requires a subdued nobility that Wahlberg portrays very well) it's in the supporting cast that the film finds its individuality.

A great deal of the humour in the film - and The Fighter is often a fantastically funny film -comes from the scenes involving Alice and the cavalcade of Micky's sisters, who trail her like chickens following a mother hen, and their baseless hatred of Charlene, which seems to be derived solely from the fact that she works in a bar and spent a semester at college. The family dynamics in the film feel very real and lived in, with decades of recriminations bubbling under the surface, just waiting for Alice to use them to her advantage, such as when she silences one of her daughters by making reference to an unpaid debt. Melissa Leo is fantastic as Alice, imbuing her with just the right level of insecurity to stop her just being a one-note monster. She is just as believable when she is insulting Charlene as she is crying when Dickie is sent to prison.

As Dickie, Christian Bale regains a lot of the brio that made him a cult favourite, but which has largely been lost since he became a star. Despite his shocking weight loss for the role, he makes Dickie the biggest presence in any room he's in. A clown who makes friends everywhere he goes - he is just as comfortable walking the streets of Lowell as he is surrounded by hardened criminals - Bale plays the role as broad comedy, portraying Dickie as he sees himself; a superstar who is the life of the party. When Dickie has an awakening late in the day, finally realising what a colossal fuck-up he is, the shift is just as shocking for the audience as it is for Dickie. We like this guy, even if his actions are destroying himself and his relationships.

Most importantly, though, there is a love and tenderness to its characters, however strange and abrasive they may at first appear, that gives The Fighter much of its power. We never doubt that he loves Micky, that Micky loves him, and that Alice loves both of them. It is that central core of emotion that allows the film to shift from being about the dangers of a complacent family to one about a man's quest for self-determination. Ultimately, the film is about Micky and how he must assert himself in his life and his profession, that he must not choose between his family and his girlfriend, but find some way to balance the two.

Much like Micky, The Fighter has to balance its conflicting aspects in order to succeed, something which it manages with aplomb, coalescing into a hugely entertaining and enthralling boxing movie that also works as a funny, clever character study.

Grade: A-