From a purely technical standpoint, The Fighter was very
well-made. Every single acting performance is phenomenal. The direction,
sound design and cinematography are all solid. The fight scenes are
engaging, immersive and thrilling to watch (they’re still not exactly Rocky
or Raging Bull in terms of quality, but what is?). The problem
here is that the character development is a hot mess from top to bottom.
Let’s start from the beginning: The Fighter is the true story
of a boxer named Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). He was trained by his older
brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), who famously took on Sugar Ray
Leonard (himself) and won. Micky’s manager is his mother, Alice Ward,
played by Melissa Leo. Basically put, Micky’s family raised him to be a
boxer and they all love him, so he feels an obligation to do well by
them. Trouble is, his relatives are all fuckups. They mean well, to be
sure, but they’re still a load of ignorant, self-righteous, hopeless
fuckups who are too proud to know or admit that they need Micky more
than he needs them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this family is
one trailer home away from officially being white trash.
Dicky is a crack addict who gets so high so constantly that he can’t
give Micky the regular training he needs. As for Alice, she’s a
domineering bitch who quickly proves to be an incompetent manager.
Eventually, Dicky lands himself in jail yet again and Alice wants to
stall Micky’s career until Dicky can come back. At this point, some
friends from Micky’s community — including love interest Charlene,
played by Amy Adams — band together to help get Micky’s career back on
track, on the condition that Micky’s family gets shut out.
Now, I know what you’d be thinking if you paid attention to those
last two paragraphs. You’d be asking what role Micky plays in all of
this or what he wants. After all, any moviegoer with half a brain would
want to know the motivations of our protagonist and what role he plays
in the overall narrative. Too bad the movie doesn’t.
See, the thing about Rocky is that he wanted to be in the ring. He
wanted to take his brief shot at fame and push it as far as he possibly
could. As for Jake La Motta, he couldn’t not fight. That guy was
constantly overflowing with so much destructive energy that he took it
out on anyone and everyone else, just so he didn’t have to take it out
on himself. These two boxers are cinematic icons because they were
self-driven with clear ambitions for greatness. I didn’t see one iota of
that in Micky Ward. Sure, he’s in the ring because that’s all he knows
how to do, but I got the clear and distinct impression that if his
family or his girlfriend ever really wanted Micky to quit and find a
safer job, he would’ve done it.
The only time that Micky actively takes charge of the plot and
independently decides what he’s going to do is when he’s in the ring.
During the other 90 percent of the film, the only thing Micky ever does
is decide who’s going to think and speak on his behalf. When we first
meet Micky, he’s in front of a camera crew, totally unable to get a word
in because Dicky is shooting his mouth off next to him. In the film’s
very last shot, it’s more of the same: Dicky is talking at a million
miles an hour and all Micky can do is smile. Our lead character became
the world welterweight champion and his character hasn’t developed any
more of a backbone. Augh.
No, pretty much all of this movie’s character development goes to
Dicky Eklund. Dicky is the boxer who fell from grace. Dicky is the one
who got a documentary made about him, unknowing that the documentary was
actually about the dangers of crack addiction. In fact, the scene in
which the documentary gets shown on HBO is easily the biggest turning
point in the film. The characters all learn what shitbags they are, and
our supposed protagonist didn’t have a thing to do with it. Hell, it’s
the supporting character’s predicament that changes the main character’s
attitude! Anyway, Dicky subsequently overcomes the drug addiction and
works to make himself a better trainer for Micky.
But then comes the real slap in the face. Micky is inevitably forced
to choose between bringing Dicky back as his trainer or keeping the team
that brought him back on top. Micky is so indecisive about the matter
that Charlene chooses for him and walks out. Inevitably, the two sides
have to reconcile… but it isn’t Micky that does it. No, it’s Dicky who
goes to Charlene and brings her back to Micky’s corner. Sure, Micky
comes to try and bring her back, but only after Dicky has finished
talking. That was it, folks. That was the crux of the entire movie, the
resolution of all its main themes and conflicts, and our protagonist had
absolutely no part in it. No, that honor went to the supporting
Christian Bale did some amazing work here. He had such a dynamic
character and Bale wonderfully played him, from Dicky’s absolute worst
to his total recovery and everything in between. The problem is that he
took way too much of the spotlight and had a much greater effect on the
plot than the guy who got top billing! As for Wahlberg, he’s also giving
everything he’s got. The guy devoted himself to this part in mind, body
and soul… but he’s got nothing to work with. What the hell was
Wahlberg supposed to do with this indecisive character who let everyone
else speak for him and push him around?
Amy Adams has a similar problem. She’s always been a beauty and an
amazing actress, but she’s absolutely scorching here, with untold
amounts of attitude and sex appeal to spare. The bad news is that
Charlene has to be the most implausibly convenient and lazily written
girlfriend I’ve seen in quite some time. To wit: During their first
date, Micky takes her to some foreign film he knows nothing about and
sleeps through it. On their way back to the car, he starts venting to
her about his family issues and how his confidence is shaken after a
fight he just lost. At that point, any girl with half a brain would have
said “You’re not worth this shit, don’t call me again.” But Charlene
goes in for the kiss. She does indeed dump him at a later point, until
Dicky’s aforementioned crack documentary goes live, and she’s suddenly
on Micky’s doorstep ready with a shoulder to cry on. Gag me.
The tertiary cast is simply godawful. Micky’s opponent for the
climactic fight is a tremendously one-dimensional douchebag,
transparently setting up Micky as the underdog hero. Micky also has
seven sisters, all of whom are interchangeable, superficial, brainless
and annoying harpies who do nothing except parrot whatever Alice says.
But by far the worst background character is Micky’s ex-wife. I’m
grateful she only got two scenes, because I kept hoping an anvil would
fall on her head whenever she came onscreen. I don’t care what Micky
ever did to her, it was no excuse for this character to be such a
vindictive, spiteful, unreasonable and heartless bitch.
I wish I could like The Fighter. I really do. The fight scenes
are wonderful, the visuals are solid and the actors are all at the top
of their game. Alas, our supposed protagonist is so inert and the
attempts at characterization are so mismanaged that I can’t possibly
recommend it. Yet the film is getting a lot of awards buzz, particularly
for Christian Bale. I wouldn’t dream of complaining about that, as his
work is very good here. I wouldn’t even mind if Wahlberg, Adams, Leo and
David O. Russell himself all got nominations. But for Best Writing?
Best Picture? Get the fuck outta here.