Film Review: The Fighter (directed by David O. Russell)


I’m usually pretty cynical when it comes to “inspiring” movies, especially when they’re 1) based on a true story and 2) centered around some sort of professional sport.  Usually, these films turn out to be not so much inspiring as just insipid and predictable.  However, there is always an exception to any rule and this year, that exception is David O. Russell’s touching and exciting boxing film, The Fighter.

To put it mildly, professional athletics are not my thing.  I get bored with football and the squeaky shoes of basketball annoy me.  I did briefly get caught up in the world series this year but then the Rangers lost to the Giants and I pretty much swore never to allow my heart to be broken again.  Tennis would be tolerable if not for all the grunting.  I will occasionally watch a minute or two of golf but that’s just because I think golf courses are pretty.  However, boxing does hold a certain primal fascination for me.    Maybe it’s because I’ve seen far too many guys do the whole “Who you calling a bitch, bitch?” routine without ever throwing a punch (I swear, guys remind me of cats when they try to verbally spar, with all the hissing and staring) that it’s just undeniably exciting (in so many ways) to actually see two men actually punching each other until one is undeniably the winner.  However, boxing — as a sport — is still largely a mystery to me.  I don’t know who the current champion is nor do I know how or why he got to be the champion.  I can name a few boxers — Muhammad Ali (because everyone knows him), Mike Tyson (ditto), George Foreman (because we own one of his grills), Oscar De La Hoya (because he’s cute), and Lennox Lewis (because he was on the first season of The Celebrity Apprentice).

And now, thanks to The Fighter, I know of “Irish” Mickey Ward and his half-brother Dicky Eklund.

In the film, Mickey Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) is portrayed as being a well-meaning, blue-collar guy who lives in Lowell, Massachusetts (home of Jack Kerouac) and who makes a living as a “stepping stone,” a below-average boxer who is used by better boxers as just a “stepping stone” on their way to a bigger fight.  He is managed by his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and is trained by his half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale).  Dicky used to be a pro-boxer himself but, as the film begins, he  is more interested in smoking crack than throwing punches.  Still, Dicky remains a local hero and his mother’s favorite and Mickey lives in his shadow.

After one final humiliating defeat in the ring, Ward decides to stop boxing and instead devotes his time to his new girlfriend, a bartender named Charlene (Amy Adams).  Dicky, meanwhile, ends up getting sent to prison.  With Dicky locked away, Mickey starts to come into his own as a person and a boxer and he eventually reenters the ring.  Eventually, he gets his chance at a championship fight.  However, at the same time, Dicky is released from prison and trying desperately to reenter Mickey’s life despite Charlene’s insistence that Mickey stay away from his loving but self-destructive family. 

By the film’s conclusion, the story has become less about Mickey Ward’s fights in the boxing ring and more about his own battle to find the confidence necessary to stop being dominated by the people around him and to live and take responsibility for his own life and his own future.  As undeniably exciting as all of the boxing is, it’s the film’s portrait of Mickey Ward as an essentially nice guy struggling to be independent that makes The Fighter such a moving film.

If you’ve read Sharon Waxman’s Rebels in the Backlot, then you might feel that know a bit about director David O. Russell.  Of the six directors profiled in that book, Russell came across the most negatively, a temperamental prima donna who was portrayed as being the type to accidentally make a great film.  Well, I don’t know if that portrait is an accurate one but The Fighter is no accident.  Russell directs this film with an energy and an attention to detail that puts so-called “nice guy” directors like Ed Zwick to shame.  For me, Russell is at his best in the film’s opening scenes where Mickey and Dicky strut through the streets of Lowell while Heavy’s How You Like Me Now plays in the background.  Not much happens in these scenes.  For the most part, Dicky just BSes with the locals while Mickey shyly watches.  But, in just a matter of minutes, Russell manages to tell us everything that we need to know about Mickey Ward, Dicky Eklund, and Lowell, Massachusetts.

Russell also gets four excellent performances from his lead actors.  Everyone already knows that Christian Bale is amazing in the role of Dicky.  Let’s be honest — we all know he would be even before this film opened.  He’s Christian Bale and Dicky Eklund is a great role.  So instead of repeating what you already know, I’m going to take some time to praise Bale’s co-stars, all three of whom give excellent performances.

As Mickey Ward, Mark Wahlberg once again proves that he’s one of the few leading men working today who can actually bring an air of authenticity to a blue-collar role.  At first, it seems like Wahlberg is going to be overshadowed by both Bale and Melissa Leo (much as Mickey was initially overshadowed by Dicky and his mother).  However, once Dicky has been sent to jail and the movie focuses on Mickey’s relationship with Charlene, you suddenly realize that Wahlberg really is the movie’s heart and soul.  It helps that he has a very real chemistry with Amy Adams.  There’s very few actors who can convince you that they’re falling in love on-screen but Wahlberg proves, in this film, that he’s one of them.

Playing Mickey’s mother and manager, Melissa Leo is alternatively touching and horrifying.  Whether she’s scolding Dicky for continually choosing drugs over family or accusing Charlene of being an “MTV girl,” Leo dominates every scene she’s in.  With this film, Welcome to the Riley’s, and Frozen River, Melissa Leo has quickly become one of my favorite actresses.

Finally, in the role of Charlene, Amy Adams is finally given a chance to show what she’s actually capable of when given an actual character to play.  I’ve always liked Amy Adams because she’s always come across as so genuinely sweet in almost every role she’s played.  Plus, we’re both redheads, we both wanted to be ballerinas, and we both briefly worked at the Gap when we were 18 (though not at the same time, obviously.  And not at the same Gap either).    Furthermore, before breaking into acting, Amy Adams was a Hooters girl and I once applied for a job at Hooters though my mom made me go back and withdraw my application an hour later.  Plus, Amy was born in Italy which is where I would have been born in an ideal world.  And, in an ideal world, I would have her nose as opposed to the one I got stuck with.  (Sorry, I love being a fourth Italian but I still have issues with my big, Italian nose…)

So, yes, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actresses which is why it pained me to see her give such an annoying performance in Julie and Julia last year.  I was worried that maybe all the sweetness had finally given way to self-parody.  However, much as the Fighter is about characters searching for redemption, the movie is also a redemption of sorts for Amy Adams.  Yes, Charlene is another sweet-and-nurturing-girlfriend role for Adams but she brings an unexpected edginess and a very genuine anger to her role.  Charlene may be a nurturer but she’s no doormat and, for me, there’s something very refreshing about seeing a strong, independent woman in a movie who is also still very feminine, nurturing, and unapologetically sexual.  As I previously stated, Wahlberg and Adams have a very real, very definite chemistry in this film and, as a result, this film about a very violent sport is one of the most genuinely romantic that I’ve seen in a long time.

One final note: On a personal level, this movie almost made me want to go out and find a boxer to date.  Why?  So I’ll have an excuse to get dressed up all sexy-like whenever he has a fight.  Seriously, I want that black dress that Charlene wears to all of Mickey’s fights.  It’s to die for.