Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, and Keith Dorrington
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Studio/Runtime: Paramount Pictures/115 min.
Russell keeps it real, simple
At a certain point, all boxing movies are somewhat the same. We see an athlete prepare for fights, win some, lose some, and arrive at the ultimate bout that determines whether or not the protagonist wins or loses. That’s certainly the case with The Fighter, whose titular character is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), working to make his way up the welterweight championship. He lives in the shadow of his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), who made it all the way to fighting Sugar Ray Leonard before succumbing to a lifetime of drugs and disgrace. Ward is helped by a girl he falls in love with, Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who helps him to reject the recurring negative pattern of Dicky and the rest of Micky’s family that keeps him from winning his bouts.
But that simple story is expanded upon by David O. Russell largely by making each one of these characters as real as possible. The entire cast turns out exceedingly good performances, and if they can become over-the-top, Russell manages to make it feel like just another part of the small world he’s created. Using mostly handheld cameras, he manages to stay out of the way and let his actors tell the story. With its intimate nature that occasionally seems created for the stage, The Fighter can feel like an old Elia Kazan movie. Wahlberg and Bale take what could easily become simply types and give the story not just some gravity but, more importantly, a sense of humanity. Bale is never just a crack addict; he’s a person who happens to be addicted to crack.
The title itself The Fighter is also oddly a misnomer, as unlike even many great boxing/martial arts/wrestling films, it’s not just about Ward. In fact, although he’s the center of the maelstrom, what we’re shown is that he’s a sort of projection of the community (as was Ecklund). Ward’s large family, its friends, members of the neighborhood, the boxing gym, even the crackhouse are given importance, and in fact the story is just as much about Ecklund’s redemption as it is Ward’s triumph. There’s something touching about how egalitarian and holistic the movie is without being preachy about it, from the importance of family even when they’re causing you problems to the way one individual can help bring happiness to an entire area.
Although it may not sound like it, The Fighter is also an extremely risky movie to make. It’s not flashy or avant-garde in any way, but the type of extreme earnestness and almost naiveté required is a stretch, particularly for Russell and Bale. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, but manages to avoid being saccharine—all of its clichés are just part of the truth about these characters and the world that it’s interested in showing. So sure, it’s an exceedingly simple movie, and it’s easy to dismiss as just another sports flick about overcoming odds, but it’s also an exceedingly well-told movie, which is far and away more important.