The Fighter, the latest collaboration of director David O. Russell (Three Kings) with Mark Wahlberg, is an unexpectedly inspirational film. It is based on the true story about small town boxer, Micky Ward (Wahlberg) trying to make it to the title fight while dealing with his overbearing family and his wayward older brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who can’t keep up with his training duties. His street-wise, hard-nosed mother (Melissa Leo) manages his boxing affairs and tries to manage his personal affairs such as his relationship with Charlene the bartender (played by Amy Adams).
While boxing is the subject of this film, what draws out the beauty of it is the interpersonal relationship between Micky and his family, most notably his brother Dicky. Dicky was Micky’s boxing trainer all his life, even winning a title for himself against Sugar Ray Leonard, until he succumbed to the life of a crack addict. The film opens like a documentary, supposedly for Dicky’s comeback fight. Reality sets in when it becomes a segment on crack addiction; yet it is a side story within a story that gives the film an indie feel to it. Even Micky’s mother and sisters are caricatures with big hair and determination to blame the girlfriend for Micky’s troubles. As Micky struggles to get a balance of what’s good for his career and maintaining his family ties, Dicky dives further into his declining lifestyle. It reaches a turning point where both brothers have to decide the right course for each of them.
The fighting sequences are technically proficient as boxing scenes go, but it feels harder and punchier. Somehow you wonder if Wahlberg actually got hurt during those scenes. (Even if he did, he had a few years of boxing training while preparing for the film.) If the boxing itself doesn’t seem spectacular, then Wahlberg’s physicality overpowers it. The real Sugar Ray Leonard also makes an appearance in the film and actual footage of the match between him and Dicky is shown.
As Wahlberg’s understated performance matches Amy Adam’s tough and tender byplay (it’s refreshing to not see her as a perky princess), Christian Bale and Melissa Leo deliver outstanding and brash performances that take command of the film itself. Leo is unabashed at playing the manipulating mother who at once adores her boys as much as she takes over their lives. It is not surprising that this film has recently garnered Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress for both Adams and Leo.
Christian Bale leads this cast into that upper level sphere of stardom through his extreme portrayal of Dicky Eklund. If you’ve ever seen Bale’s performances in The Machinist or American Psycho, you’ll understand the unlimited range of talent he has for facial, vocal, and physical transformations he goes through for his characters. As balding Dicky, he’s the twitchy, spastic, emaciated crack addict who has lost his focus and is forced to withstand his own physical limitations. His performance almost seems over the top until you realize, when a clip is shown with the real Micky and Dicky, that Bale was true to form.