Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fighter (***)

Directed by David O. Russell


Sports movies are by the books. They always follow the same storyline: beaten underdog must overcome enormous odds to make it to the top of the mountain. And there's only two outcomes: either the underdog defies all the odds at the last second, reaching his ultimate goal (Miracle, Major League) or falls at the last second, still filled with pride to have gotten the opportunity (Rocky, The Bad News Bears). Even the gritty, realistic The Wrestler followed this blueprint. David O. Russell's The Fighter - the story of boxer, 'Irish' Mickey Ward - is no different (interestingly enough, Darren Aronofsky started working on The Wrestler after dropping out of this film). It's an almost seamless translation of the American sports film tradition, but it still works incredibly well. In order to rise above the usual the usual well worn archetypes, you have to have great actors embodying interesting characters, and there's plenty of that in The Fighter.

It certainly should be said though, that the story is less about boxing and more about family. If this film is rooted in even an ounce of truth (and Mickey Ward, himself, has said that it's as close to reality as it could be), then the Ward/Eklund family is like something out of Shakespeare - a motley crew of tragic, almost vaudevillian misfits that are all scratching for their own interests. At the center of everything is Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), who's trying his hardest to invigorate a young welterweight boxing career. His climb is frequently undermined by his family with his half-brother, Dickie (Christian Bale), also being his trainer and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is also his manager. Together, Dickie and Alice send Mickey into a slew of bad fights and he develops the reputation of being a bum. A stepping stone. The kind of boxer that other up-and-comers like to chew meat on before getting to the fight that they really want. But Dickie and Alice are family, and if Mickey knows anything, it's loyalty.

A former boxer himself, Dickie has always been Mickey's best sparring partner and has taught Mickey everything he knows. Once upon a time, Dickie got his own shot to fight Sugar Ray Leonard and was able to knock him down. Over time, he's evolved into a local legend within his town of Lowell, MS; garnering himself the nickname "The Pride of Lowell". Since then, though, he's fallen on tough times, developing a harrowing addiction to crack cocaine. When HBO approaches him to make a documentary, he thinks its going to be about his big boxing comeback. In reality, it's about Dickie's catastrophic descent, allowing his drug dependence to totally swallow what could have been a successful career. Dickie is so oblivious to his role in his own disintegration, and it doesn't help that Alice, along with the rest of the family (which includes seven sisters), still treat him like the Pride of Lowell and not the junkie he's become.

So with Alice more concerned about Dickie's reemergence in boxing, and Dickie preoccupied with getting his junk, Mickey is often left to fend for himself, getting thrown into fights that usually lead to him getting pulverized. He doesn't even think to speak up, until he begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), a strong-minded bartender who does her best to convince Mickey that he will only move forward if he leaves his family behind. So back and forth Mickey goes, struggling to choose between the logical advice from Charlene and his own blood. I'm not sure most people would have trouble with this decision, but it says a lot about Mickey that he actually struggles with it. It's an interesting dynamic that The Fighter has, in that Mickey may be the most passive boxer I've ever heard of - he's certainly the most passive one in the movies. Alice and Dickie and Charlene are so dynamic when they're on the screen, that Mickey often becomes an afterthought.

And so we come to The Fighter's biggest flaw, and that is that Mickey may be the fifth most interesting character in the movie. We don't necessarily root for Mickey, as much as we root against everything that has held him back. Too often, I found myself frustrated by his inability to make the film's tougher decisions - instead, usually leaving them for Dickie or Charlene. And too often, I found myself wondering how different a film about Dickie may have been (perhaps, better?). To say that this is a movie about Mickey Ward seems misleading. It's a movie about the entire Ward/Eklund family, and their collective effort to rise to prominence again. Well, at least, that's the more interesting part of the movie. In the credits, we have a small scene with the real Mickey and Dickie, in which Mickey claims "I never get a word in, edgewise." I guess I can applaud the film on its authenticity, but to headline a film with someone so unwilling to make a statement sometimes left me a bit numb as how to feel about him.

But there is a collection of wonderful acting talent here. Even Wahlberg is good, he's just not given particularly juicy material. The real star is Bale, who is all kinds of mannered and jumpy as the strung-out Dickie. Eklund is not malicious, and does care very much for Mickey and his boxing career, he's just clueless. Bale does a fantastic at showing subtle glimpses of the soft mama's boy underneath the gritty addict. He may be vocal about his boxing comeback, but we can always see it in his eyes - he knows that his boxing days are over, and all hope that he has is invested in Mickey. As the horribly misguided Alice, Melissa Leo plays the film's strongest antagonist, fighting shamelessly for all the glory she has little to do with. If she can't get her champ with her favored son, Dickie, she's willing to settle on Mickey, even if it means selling him down the river. Leo's performance is appropriately wicked, but warm at all the right moments, never letting Alice walk down the path of complete monster. As Charlene, Amy Adams is fiery, defying her meek, virtuous reputation in what is one of the finest performances of her young but impressive career.

This is easily David O. Russell's best film since 1999's Three Kings (which has become one of the most unsung film masterpieces of the last three decades - beautifully blending action comedy with politically-fueled drama). He's spent the last ten years trying to overcome negative responses to his films (2004's I Heart Huckabee's was oddly brilliant at times, but never really found its audience; 2009's Nailed never got released) and bad publicity from altercations with various actors on set. You really only need one good film to leave all that behind, and The Fighter may just be the broad-enough crowd-pleaser that could do it. A lot of the visual technique here is taken right out of the book of Martin Scorsese (though, oddly enough, not from Raging Bull; but more alluding toward Goodfellas and Casino), while some other moments borrow from more classic Hollywood sports movies. It seemed odd that Russell - who's always kept style consistent in all of his films - decided to go all over the map on this one, never really settling on a specific storytelling device (or a protagonist, for that matter) to steer the ship.

I can see The Fighter taking off with American audiences, because it exploits the underdog storyline better than any sports film in many, many years. And by telling Mickey Ward's story through the prism of his family, it manages to rise above the cliche. I'm still wondering if a Dickie Eklund movie may have been even more interesting, but the chances of that happening may not be very likely (not to mention that The Fighter pretty much is a Dickie Eklund movie - he dominates the screen). It'll never surprise you, but it's charming, brimming with warmth and suspense in all the right moments. It has a prime collection of professional actors who all bring some inspired work to the screen. Every year, there is a film that will make you groan with its shameless pandering toward end of the year awards. At least The Fighter will make you smile.

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