Film Review: The Fighter

While it’s not a total knockout, 'The Fighter' wins on points thanks to a strong ensemble cast and director David O. Russell’s playful spirit behind the camera.

Even though it’s based on the true story of Lowell, Massachusetts-born bruiser “Irish” Micky Ward, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Fighter more closely resembles a 21st-century remake of the boxing-movie classic Rocky. After all, both films revolve around working-class journeymen palookas better known for taking punishment than winning matches who, through a combination of determination and luck, end up with a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a title shot. And in the hands of another director, The Fighter could very easily have turned out to be a Son of Rocky clone.

But within the first ten minutes, it becomes clear that David O. Russell—the unpredictable auteur previously responsible for Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings and the woefully underrated I Heart Huckabees—has something quite different in mind. Where Rocky was a spare and self-serious picture, The Fighter is a loud, rowdy and often very funny movie that’s closer in spirit to Russell’s terrific 1996 comedy Flirting With Disaster. Like that film, The Fighter is, at heart, the story of one guy’s turbulent relationship with his eccentric extended family.

Filmed largely on location in Lowell, The Fighter introduces us to the battling Wards, a clan of eleven that includes no-nonsense matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo), her quiet husband George (Jack McGee), seven nattering girls and Alice’s troublemaking son from a previous relationship, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a once-promising fighter (he briefly became a hometown hero for knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard during a bout, although, in actuality, the champion just tripped) who was knocked out of the ring by drug addiction. The family’s one straight arrow is Micky (Mark Wahlberg), who grew up idolizing his half-brother and follows him into the boxing business.

But several years into his pro career, success eludes Micky. Instead, he’s become famous for being a “stepping stone,” the guy other up-and-coming boxers fight and defeat in order to square off against more prestigious opponents. Naturally, Micky is unhappy with his reputation, but family loyalty makes him unwilling to fire his manager (Alice) or his trainer (Dicky…when he remembers to show up for sparring sessions, that is). Like the Italian Stallion before him, it takes the love of a good woman—in this case, brassy barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams)—to refocus his energies on becoming the best boxer he can be, even if that means firing his mom and brother from his staff.

Wahlberg has been itching to tell Ward’s story for several years now—in fact, an earlier incarnation of The Fighter was set to star Brad Pitt as Dicky with Darren Aronofsky in the director’s chair. (Aronofsky opted to make The Wrestler instead, but remains onboard as an executive producer.) Buffed up and radiating earnest enthusiasm, the actor makes the perfect straight man for the rambunctious family comedy Russell has in mind. That’s not to denigrate Wahlberg’s performance, by the way. He’s never been a particularly dynamic screen presence, but he always comes poised and prepared and shows little interest in hogging the limelight.

In The Fighter, Wahlberg effectively holds down the center of the movie while his co-stars push the material to extremes. Take Bale, for instance; freed from the somber action-hero persona he’s adopted of late, the actor becomes a ball of nervous energy, his body constantly in motion and his mouth spitting out words as quickly as Micky throws punches. It’s a live-wire, attention-grabbing and likely award-winning performance that regularly approaches the edge of caricature but never tips over. The same can’t entirely be said of Leo’s outsized portrayal of Alice, who, at times, resembles a Kristen Wiig character from “Saturday Night Live.” Still, Leo is too skilled an actress to not locate and draw out the sadness and regret that lurk behind the steely face that Alice presents to the world. As for Adams, she strikes a lower key than Bale and Leo, but gets to show off a rough-and-tumble sensuality that separates Charlene from the goody-two-shoes girls she’s been typecast as to date, not to mention Talia Shire’s shy, sexless Adrian.

While The Fighter entertains throughout, those hoping for a provocative genre-bending exercise like Three Kings may come away from the film somewhat disappointed. The script, which is credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, follows the standard boxing-movie formula, with the usual training montages, expressions of self-doubt and pre-fight locker-room rituals, and the director doesn’t attempt to land any surprise haymakers from a storytelling perspective. Even the climactic title bout plays out in the usual fashion, with Micky’s opponent battering him around for the first few rounds until the underdog makes a roaring comeback right when it counts. (Like all the fights, this match is very well-staged, though, with Russell directing the action to resemble an actual televised sporting event rather than the superhuman slugfests of the later Rocky films or the impressionistic brawls seen in Raging Bull.) The conventional narrative makes the film’s offbeat comic tone and the supporting cast’s aggressive performances all the more crucial to its success. This may be Russell’s most “normal” movie to date, but it demonstrates its own distinct fighting style.