We’ve entered an alternate universe. Over the course of my lifetime the
tried and true staple of the boxing film has gone from a reliable
source of entertainment to a niche occupied by films that take place in
an era we may never see again. By principle, boxing films are period
pieces now. The sport has moved on. Though there are still big dollar
fights and some cachet to be had by being a professional boxer, the
particular sort of drama and gritty energy boxing films have provided
represent a bygone age. Mixed martial arts, grappling, and other various
sorts of competitive pugilism are the big draw now. Corruption in
boxing, a string of champions who were far from role models, and the
immediacy and excitement of the new extreme sports make these tales of
men in rings almost quaint now. That’s not to say a film on the sport
can’t be made in current times but the tarnish on the game would have to
be a character in the story for it to connect. Luckily there are plenty
of great tales yet to be told. From the days where gentleman with waxy
mustaches squared off to the early 2000’s, boxing was the modern world’s
connection to the gladiators of old. Whether the stories be glossy
populist offerings or aggressively arty fare, the result was always
compelling either for comparative study, ridicule, or a more primordial
sensation that is inherently part of the sport’s appeal.

The Fighter
is a boxing movie but not nearly as much as I’d expected. It’s a story
of family. Of commitment. Of finding what defines us and rising from the
shadows of those who came before. It’s also a weird concoction on the
surface. A Darren Aronofsky project that ended up being a David O.
Russell movie. Two very distinct and very different filmmakers, both
with qualities that serve this kind of material but not exactly kindred
spirits based solely on their work. And then there’s the pairing of Mark
Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Polar opposites on the surface. It could
have been a real odd piece but it just so happens that the end result,
regardless of the alchemy that got it there, is a powerful and somehow
fresh movie about a subject that had seemingly been sucked dry of ideas.

Renn: Most of the boxing material in The Fighter
is well done, and there are a few clever photography choices and cool
moments of face-busting fury, but the film works because of the family
dynamic that centers it. There are montages, there’s the run-down old
gym and there are dramatic ring-corner speeches, but the meat of this
film is the collection of impeccably crafted scenes of a big complex
family trying not to kill each other.

and Dicky Ward are two brothers from Lowell, Massachusetts who have
centered their lives around boxing. Dicky is washed up and addicted to
crack, though he still maintains some status in Lowell for having
“knocked down” Sugar Ray Leonard at his peak. Micky has followed Dicky’s
footsteps into the ring, and is training under his brother for his
biggest match yet. Dicky’s gutter lifestyle means he’s more of a
liability than a help though, and despite his genuine understanding of
the sport and Micky’s talent, he’s dragging his brother down. Micky’s
life is also complicated by his mother and manager Alice, a woman who
reigns queen-like over a brood of nearly a dozen children (from two or
three fathers) that all call her by her first name. Dicky and Alice have
kept Micky well-trained and consistently boxing, but a huge amount of
selfishness has crept into their motives and the two are looking out as
much for their own spotlight as Micky’s well being. As you might expect,
an underdog story emerges as Micky picks up some heat and is given
opportunities well beyond the scope his family can provide.

great about this set-up is that an extremely predictable rags-to-riches
story of a boxer is enhanced by stellar performances and wonderful
ensemble direction from O. Russell. In all seriousness, Russell acts as
something like an orchestral conductor here, leading a white trash
symphony (in the key of non-rhotic) that accurately captures the chaos
of big-family dynamics. Fights in a family tend to be simultaneously
loving and cuttingly hateful, with the whole ruckus infinitely hilarious
to anyone on the outside, and Russell gets these (frequent) scenes
note-perfect. Very quickly into the film you understand how the Ward
family operates, but each new argument peels back a layer that makes you
understand that there are very complex emotions in each of these
people, and that there truly is love at the core of it all. But as Nick
will surely elaborate further, to get to that chewy emotional center on
some of these people, you’ve got to peel back some goddamn awful layers
of horrible hair and nightmare faces…

Nick: Nick: The supporting cast of The Fighter
isn’t just real human beings with authentic faces that resemble some of
the inhabitants of the small town of Lowell, Mass. It’s a rogue’s
gallery of nightmare people. It’s as if David O. Russell employed a
sorcerer in lieu of a casting director and that person dug deep into
their own personal terrors as they conjured one messy collection of
molecules after another. Every time the assortment of ill-gotten
siblings shows up onscreen The Fighter goes from being a boxing movie to being an unofficial sequel to Tod Browning’s Freaks.

have to admit that I was taken out of the movie from time to time
because of these ghasts. Unintentional humor is sometimes perfectly fine
but as the audience giggled at these anti-harpies I wondered if an
invisible line had been crossed and we’d seen the very limits of how
much authenticity a crowd can handle.

I’ll agree that they are the opposite of classy ladies, but they go a
long way towards selling the home environment that could generate two
world class boxers that are also marred by either crack-addiction or
crippling emotional suppression. It also shows why Micky is so strongly
attracted to a woman that has brains in her head to back the
hair-trigger shrieking and tramp stamp. That brings me to Amy Adams who,
while the 180-degree role choice is obvious, still does a wonderful job
melting into the accent and attitude. The script is also careful not to
make her too much of a shining angel, with her own selfishness and the
same danger of becoming overly possessive of Micky that his family is falling into.
There’s a real implication that if this couple stays together
and Micky doesn’t made it to the big time, they might turn into
something very closely resembling Micky’s parents. Fortunately Charlene
does have enough education, and Micky enough success that they just
might end up as reasonably-tempered people.

Looking at the film from a wider perspective, The Fighter
really fits in this year as another film from an often-great director
that sticks with being well-constructed and confident rather than
intrusively stylistic- a pattern that has made this a year for actors.
Neither Wahlberg nor Bale are playing a role that will become anyone’s
“favorite,” or would easily be called their “best,” but they’re
certainly doing work as good as they’ve ever done. Bale is the standout
by virtue of the character’s animated presence, and he really treads a
careful line and consistently plays the character, rather than the
character’s quirks. Wahlberg is a true-blue baby brother here, but he’s
also aware that he could pretty much obliterate his brother or anyone
else around him at any given time, so it’s not an “aw shucks ma” role-
he wears that primitive confidence. His love for his family is palpable and he’s
appropriately conflicted about doing anything that might be considered ”
abandoning” them, but he’s not a pushover. The dynamic between the two brothers is
perfect- they’re blood and there’s never any question of that. In
fact, a brief look at the actual brothers over the credits really says
it all, and will the choice to include will be one that wins the film

Wahlberg does better and more subtle work than most will instantly
recognize. Bale disappears into Dicky, and initially it seems as if the
two are horribly mismatched onscreen. That changes fast and I think
ultimately the pairing of the two is ingenious. Wahlberg obviously looks
the part of a pugilist and he wisely has trained to showcase functional
muscle rather than chiseled movie star muscle. So many boxing movies
feature stars who look more at home on the cover of a muscle magazine
than in a ring and though some of the film’s early fighting scenes
aren’t as tight or well-choreographed as they could have been, Wahlberg
sells being a fighter quite well. Bale is electric, and I actually think
this is one of his best roles. Because, though he’s made massive
physical transformations before, the balance of that and the looseness
and effectiveness of his work here is something to see.

It looked as if Bale’s weight-loss was going to be another
distracting method-acting gimmick, but he uses the shift in physique to
embody Dickey rather than simply resemble him. He deserves every bit of
attention he gets. Bale gets to have fun and be magnetic –despite the
crack– and you quickly understand why the family has continued to pin
so much of their hope on a lost addict. That’s a tough trick to pull,
selling “worthless addict” while simultaneously keeping the audience
from giving up on you or assuming doom from the get-go.

I think Bale and Wahlberg’s performance are both suited for them, and
for this film they sort of work as two sides of a coin. One is
inhabiting a dynamic, unique character down to the bone, and another is
finding the emotional core that brings a layer of honesty to the story.
Each is equally valuable to the film, and even when the brothers aren’t
on screen together it is their relationship that seems to be driving the
scene. Everything goes back to Micky and Dicky.

Nick mentions, you’re not going to love this film for its brilliant
boxing sequences. There is one unique boxing match that seems to have
been shot with broadcast video cameras, though still in the expected
cinematic style- an interesting choice. Micky’s style isn’t the most
dynamic or visually interesting though, so when your heart races during
the final match, its because you’re rooting for the family and for the
brothers, not because the filmmaking is dynamic and powerful. Had the
film relied more on the boxing scenes for easy thrills this would be a
problem, but it’s barely a complaint when the script and acting are as
stellar as they are.

And at the end of the day it’s not really a boxing movie. It’s a movie
about family. A movie about brothers. About not falling into the patters
than keep you from having your own identity. David O. Russell surprised
me here and in some ways I think he’s eclipsed what Darren Aronofsky
would have done (plus we get two great movies out of it instead of one).
This isn’t The Wrestler
in terms of how it’s been shot and edited. It’s raw and it embraces the
grim reality of this particular Massachusetts suburb, but it has a
different life to it. It’s a winner and if you want to compare it to
other movies about the sport, it’s one of the better boxing movies in a
good long time.

9 out of 10

This is an actor’s film, and O Russell valiantly blends into the
background and lets his fine performers and script speak for themselves.
He’s constructed a film that’s as lean and appropriately-built as its
main character, without showy nonsense or “obvious” drama. It’s a good
story greatly told, one that just so happens to concern boxers, and its a
stellar display of Hollywood talent. If only all family dramas, or all
boxing movies, could be this good.

9 out of 10